Imaginary Zambesia and imperial cartography

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Some Namibians are tripping over themselves to be seen as sole authorities on the history of the Zambezi Region, primarily in relation to its purported original location. Their arguments tend to reinforce the sentiments of those who want secession of the region.

Compatriots who testified during the treason trial, NamRights and other “concerned” Namibians claim that the Zambezi Region has never been part of Namibia, and that it has always been part of Zambesia, and therefore, should be either returned to Zambesia, or be left alone. Amazingly, the same compatriots claim that “Caprivi” is their preferred name.

Interestingly, they base their arguments on imperial cartography. To them, Africa’s history began with European colonisation and can therefore only be traced to when the colonialists set foot on our territories. They pretend that Africa had no history before the Europeans came to our shores. They further conveniently forget that borders all over the world are artificial and making a case for African exceptionalism is weak and unconvincing.

Their failure to differentiate between the territories that were originally owned by Africans before the arrival of Europeans and the territories colonised by Europeans and passed over to African states at independence, is astounding. Hence, the fancy legal doctrines that lawyers like to throw about, such as the so-called uti possidetis juris, are no more than a logical tautology.

Uti possidetis juris is a principle in international law that territory and other property remains with its possessor at the end of a conflict, unless otherwise provided for by treaty. If such a treaty does not include conditions regarding the possession of property and territory taken during the war, then the principle of uti possidetis will prevail at independence.

A brief look at the imaginary Zambesia should put to shame some of these arguments. In 1890 the British South African Company (BSAC) was chartered to administer the territories of Mashonaland, Matebeleland, Barotseland and Nyasaland. The BSAC named the chartered territories collectively as Zambesia, although Cecil Rhodes preferred to call them “Charterland”, because they were chartered.

It should be noted that the name was given by the BSAC. The territories became known as “Southern Rhodesia” and “Northern Rhodesia” or simply “BSAC territories”.

The name Zambesia was – up to 1895 – given to the territory later called Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe. Just like the British East India Company, BSAC was a mercantile company with the object of acquiring and exercising commercial and administrative rights in south-central Africa.

Zambesia was never a country, but different territories bunched together by the BSAC as their market. In many cases, only parts of some territories were part of Zambesia, and in fact only a portion of present day Zambezi Region was part of it.

It is important to remember that long before the British and Germans came to the Zambezi Region, it was called Itenge and it was under the rule of the Lozi kings (the Luyana Litungas).

Even after it was retaken and administered as part of the British protectorate of Bechuanaland (now Botswana) it was called Itenge. It should, however, be noted that some scholars argue that the original name of the region was Linyanti. This is sometimes based on the fact that one of the Lozi Kings, Sibitwane, resided in Linyanti during his reign. Linyanti means “a place of many buffalos”.

At the time, it was convenient for the king, who loved buffalos, to be closer to the delicious species. None of these kings or inhabitants of the region ever raised the notion of the territory belonging to Zambesia. In fact, they were neither subservient to, nor rulers, over the lands of the Nyasa, Mashona or Ndebele.

What is true is that Europe’s arbitrary cartography and borders left Africans bunched into countries that do not represent their heritage. This contradiction is perverse and is still a source of conflict on the continent.

The Berlin Conference left numerous scars, which have created artificial states with the forced and inconsistent amalgamation of territories without the people’s consent or input. Therefore, many bunched together African countries will always have these problems. However, the solution is not to rely on the source of the problem, the imperial maps. This has proven unreliable in many instances.

When Namibia and Botswana contested the Kasikili/Sidudu Island, both governments were guilty of not citing ancient cultural claims to the island, nor the preferences of its inhabitants and their traditional Chiefs, nor even their own national interests, if they had any. Rather, they took their case to an international court and cited piles of century-old European paperwork.

The same happened when Nigeria and Cameroon disputed an oil-rich peninsula in 2002. Similarly, one has to accept that Angola is a country, free and independent, even though before Portuguese colonisation it was composed of nine distinct and self-ruled kingdoms. Despite this, its existence as a unitary state cannot be questioned.

We need to accept that the European powers that divided and drew the maps of our territories had no knowledge or information on the nations and territories they were setting up.

Consider the seven million Kikongo speakers, who have been split into three different countries where they are presently minorities. They had their own kingdom and logically they could be having their own country today. Similar examples abound all over Africa.

Agitating for the division of territories on the basis of ethnic or tribal orientation is not a solution. The actual practice of secession and division would be difficult, if it is even functionally possible. This is simply because of the many ethnic groups that tend not to fall along the cleanest possible lines.

The debate on whether or not secession is good for Africa is a complicated and contentious one, essentially because of Africa’s unique post-colonial borders, which cannot be easily reconciled with pre-colonial borders.

The legacy of this colonial devil’s baggage is such that while others claim to belong to the mythical “Zambesia”, none of them can conclusively tell us what the rest of Namibia was called before it was christened “South West Africa”.

That said, it is important that we preoccupy ourselves with building a vibrant nation without giving too much credit to a mythical country that never existed and will never ever exist.

* Dr Charles Mubita holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of California.

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