One of President Michael Sata’s campaign promises was to partition the vast Northern Province into two, thereby creating a tenth province for Zambia. And in his maiden speech to Parliament on 14th October 2011, he made his intention official. Jack Zimba reports from Muchinga, Zambia’s newest province.
Driving up north across the Muchinga Province, one is overwhelmed by the sheer expanse of wilderness - miles on end of miombo woodland, broken only at long intervals by small human settlements. During the rainy season, these forests yield an abundance of mushroom, masuku and caterpillars which the locals collect and sell to motorists along the Great North Road.
In some places, the forests appear pristine and undisturbed by human activity, and some have argued that the beauty of northern Zambia, with its many rivers, waterfalls and scenic mountain views, could surpass that of the tourist capital, Livingstone.
With such an abundance of natural resources, it is a wonder how development has eluded this area for years. The northern part of Zambia has no industry to talk about and its agriculture remains chiefly subsistence.
Many, however, point to the vastness of the area that was Northern Province as reason for its lack of development.
With a land area of 147,200sq/km, the Northern Province was bigger than Malawi. Even Mpika, the biggest of the 13 districts that made up the province, is larger than the Copperbelt Province. This, many have argued, posed a huge administration challenge.
And so when the President proposed to partition the province, very few objected to the idea.
The new province is nestled between two geographical landmarks – the Muchinga Escapement to the west, forming the border with Eastern Province, and the Chambeshi River separates the new province from the Northern Province.
Three transport systems run like arteries through the province, carrying vital commodities between Zambia and its eastern neighbour, Tanzania.
These are the TAZARA rail line, the TAZAMA oil pipe line which carries unrefined oil to Ndola and the Great North Road.
The Great North Road is an important trade link between Zambia and Tanzania.
Dozens of Tanzanian trucks traverse the province each day carrying oil and other goods between the two countries. The truckers have earned themselves a bad reputation for causing accidents.
“Beware of the Tanzanian trucks at night” has become a clichéd warning for motorists plying this route, mostly second-hand car dealers bringing in vehicles from Japan through the port of Dar es Salem. The warning is real. We came across six overturned trucks, two of them at the same spot as if by wicked design.
In the evening, much of Muchinga seems very much like a transit area for trucks and buses travelling between Tanzania and Zambia.
The buses carry mostly traders from Lusaka and the Copperbelt to the border town of Nakonde and across into Tanzania.
Lying at an intersection, Mpika is an important gateway to Muchinga and Northern provinces. The town has a thriving business community and is a favourite stop-over for motorists. A number of shops along the highway are open 24 hours to cater for late night travellers.
Mpika has seen some good investment in the recent past, including a multi-million dollar palm oil project by Zambeef. It is also the regional headquarters for TAZARA with dozens of staff houses and workshops.
Given its portfolio, Mpika should really have been the capital of the new province, but the President settled for Chinsali, a backwater town that is, nonetheless, steeped in rich political history.
Mark Harvey, who runs a tourist resort on the Shiwa Ng’andu estate, insists the President’s choice was driven largely by his desire not to be seen to be favouring his hometown, Mpika.
“I know that the President has a problem because he comes from Mpika and it would seem as though he is favouring Mpika, but if you were to cut out the politics of this and to look at it in the clear light of day - the financial implications - you could have Mpika up and running in probably four or five years, whereas Chinsali I think is going to take 15 years and an incredible amount of money. But do we have that money to waste?”
“It’s like building from scratch,” says Muchinga’s first minister, Malozo Sichone, who, at 33, is the youngest minister in President Sata’s Cabinet.
The minister’s assertion is just a little bit of an over-statement. For this is indeed a town with no filling station and no automated banking services.
Fuel is bought on the black market from illegal fuel dealers who sell the commodity from 20-litre plastic containers. The vendors buy the fuel from Nakonde and some of it is bought from Tanzanian tank drivers.
There is a small post office at the corner of the main street – a dusty road lined with small grocery stalls. And there is a bank that resembles a warehouse.
Not everyone is excited about Chinsali’s new status.
“That is shooting ourselves in the foot before we’ve even started,” says Mark, who has a damning description of Chinsali.
“Chinsali is not even a one-horse-town because the horse died even before it got there,” he says.
The local civic leaders are, however, upbeat about the prospects of the new provincial capital and are already envisioning shopping centres and new residential areas. Land for an office complex to house government departments has already been secured.
According to council secretary Mutakela Kabombo, the council’s main challenge now is to acquire customary land and turn it over to the state for development. Displacements seem inevitable. Residents of surrounding shanties and villages have already being told to upgrade their houses or move out to pave way for modern housing.
There are also plans to improve and increase the water supply to cater for the expected population growth.
“Chinsali has the potential. There is so much idle land. It’s a vast district with a lot of resources lying idle, and to open up these opportunities is to do what the President did,” Mr Sichone told me as he inspected the construction work of a new university called Mulakupikwa.
Mulakupikwa University is scheduled for completion in June. The K200billion-project is a revival of Kaunda’s vision to set up a learning institution in the area back in the 1970s.
That project was, however, abandoned with one four-storey structure left to ruin.
After almost four decades, the structure is considered too costly to rehabilitate and complete. It now stands beside the new project, a stark reminder of an ambitious government plan gone awry.
The second university will be built on a 9,000ha plot at Lubwa, an old mission outpost that is also the birthplace of Zambia’s first president Dr Kenneth Kaunda, but that has remained neglected over the years.
The mission hospital at Lubwa now lies in dereliction with cracked walls and only a lean staff to attend to patients.
The state of Lubwa is seen by some as one of the biggest blotches on the legacy of the former president.
A few metres from the hospital is a big stone monument that marks the very spot where the Kaunda’s house once stood. And both parents of the former president are buried in a cemetery within the mission grounds.
By building two universities in Chinsali, the government hopes to transform this place into a university town of sorts.
It is envisioned that when the two universities open, Chinsali will become a thriving community with more investment opportunities for locals and outsiders.
But, “Nobody has really thought out how to get investment into a rural area,” says Mark, who argues that Chinsali cannot attract significant investment.
“I wouldn’t invest in Chinsali. I would invest in Mpika,” he says.
He says the government should seriously consider tax rebates for people investing in rural areas like Chinsali.
“They need to come and do a survey of this province – what is its potential?” says Mark.
The blunt-talking Mark says the ZDA should take keen interest in identifying investment opportunities in the new province.
Chinsali District Commissioner Kaweme Mumbi says Muchinga is rich in minerals such as magnesium and precious stones.
One sector that is expected to drive the economy of the new province is agriculture.
With its rich soils, good rainfall and vast land, Muchinga could be Zambia’s food basket.
But not until there is a paradigm shift in its agriculture system, suggests Mark’s older brother, Charles.
“One of the biggest factors that is wrong with the present agriculture is that they are making the people grow maize,” he says. “The People of Muchinga Province should not be growing maize, they should be growing beans, soya beans and sunflower which are high-value crops.”
Charles is probably the biggest farmer in the province, owning hundreds of head of cattle and 2,500 antelopes and zebra at Shiwa Estate, which is also a tourist destination.
Charles is more positive about the new provincial centre, but still describes it as “dead wood”.
Driving further across the province reveals another problem - deforestation.
Muchinga is losing its beautiful forests to logging and charcoal burning. Further up it bears scars of chitemene – a primitive system of agriculture that involves clearing and burning of bushes.
Isoka, Miyombe and Nakonde districts have lost much of the forests to logging and charcoal burning.
It is said that most of the charcoal ends up in Tanzania where it is prized for its high quality. Some more enterprising Tanzanian dealers are even thought to export the commodity to Kenya and overseas to Saudi Arabia.
Chilufya Kapwepwe is an environmentalist with a passion to protect Muchinga’s remaining forests.
She says if well managed, timber could be Muchinga’s biggest export.
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Imiti Ikula Empanga Environment and Development Organisation, Ms Kapwepwe encourages villagers to grow crops such as cassava as an alternative source of livelihood.
As we leave Chinsali, I try hard to create a mental picture of the new provincial centre with a shopping centre, big government complex and busy streets, but it all seems a little bit farfetched for now. But there is an air of excitement and expectation in the town.