THE STORY BEHIND THE KARIBA DAM – POLICE CLASH WITH CHISAMU VILLAGERS

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SEPTEMBER 10, 1958, was a dark day for the people of Chisamu Village in Chief Chipepo’s area of Gwembe district in Southern Province. Armed with spears, axes and other traditional weapons, they had attempted to fight off a platoon of the dreaded, no-nonsense Mobile Unit Police which was under instruction to evict them from their village for resettlement in an upland area called Lusitu within the same district, but the attempt had tragic consequences.

In the clash that ensued, six of the villagers were killed while two others died on arrival at the hospital. Apart from this, a further 34 people were injured, many of them seriously, and had to spend several days in hospital for treatment.

Chisamu was one of the villages which resisted the removal order signed  by the then Gwembe District Commissioner, Mr Alan Prior, to move out of the area  expected to be flooded following the completion of the Kariba hydro-electric scheme which was being constructed at the time.

In all, 37 villages were affected by the removal order signed by the District Commissioner on August 27, 1958. According to available official records, the frequent discussions which took place in the various villages concerned revealed very clearly to the district officer that not only had a natural reluctance to move become hardened but that such reluctance had been encouraged by the spread of misleading and erroneous statements or opinions which were being deliberately expressed and propagated by certain people in the area. Such stories were:-

  • That the dam will not work;
  • That Lusitu was lower and would therefore flood;
  • That Lusitu was not suitable for settlement;
  • That the Europeans would not be able to close the dam; and
  • That resettlement was an excuse for seizing the land for European settlement.

To make things worse, the campaign encouraged by such people was reinforced by the posting of anonymous notices urging opposition to any move from the Chipepo area to Lusitu or, indeed, elsewhere purporting such notices came from the African National Congress(ANC) led by Mr Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula  and Zambia African National Congress (ZANC) led by Dr Kenneth David Kaunda. ZANC was later to become UNIP.

The history behind this fatal clash between Chisamu villagers and the Mobile Police, as narrated in official Northern Rhodesia  records,  was that in February, 1955, a decision was taken by the Federal government to construct a dam on the Zambezi River at Kariba Gorge to provide hydro-electric power.  The idea was to ensure that there was adequate supply of hydro-electric power to the mines on the Copperbelt.

However, while the decision to proceed with the construction of the Kariba Dam was that of the Federal government, the need to provide for the resettlement of the population disturbed in Gwembe district was the responsibility of the Northern Rhodesian government.

The governor by order designated as major irrigation water works both the Kariba hydro-electric project and the Kafue hydro-electric scheme.  Subsequently, the Federal government decided that the Kariba scheme should proceed, provided that funds for doing this were forthcoming.

Funds were required from the International Bank and from certain agencies under the control of the British government. However, before it would provide funds, the International Bank required the recommendation (if not the actual guarantee) from the British government.

Meanwhile, before the British government would provide such recommendation, it required to be satisfied on a number of matters, among them that adequate provision would be made for the resettlement and compensation of any Africans whose land would be submerged as a result of building the dam.

Having been satisfied as to this and other aspects,  the British government finally recommended to the International Bank that it should provide funds and agreed its own agencies should also provide additional  funds.

The construction of the Kariba Dam was estimated to raise the level of the Zambezi River from its mean unimpeded flow of 1, 300 feet above sea level to an eventual height of 1, 500 feet.

Once the lake was created, it was expected to cause the flooding of land which would entail the removal of 29, 000 Africans, who had been living on the north bank of the river in Gwembe. It was established that a total area of 925 square miles of the Gwembe district would eventually be flooded, some of it to a depth of over 300 feet.

The government officers concerned and the Native Authority believed that they were in fact faced with a hard choice between two alternatives. On the one hand an adherence to a policy of allowing the advent of actual flooding resulting from completion of the dam to be awaited presented a distinct probability of a large number of deaths which would fall mostly amongst the aged, the infirm and infants.

The other alternative was to endeavour to compel the move in the face of opposition by the villagers by the introduction of Native Authority legislation. Both the government and the Native Authority felt that the risk of a substantial number of deaths from drowning and loss of property and hardship would result if timely moves were not enforced.

Consequently, on May 17, 1958, the Native Authority at a special meeting made a removal order ordering the people to move. It was hoped that this would convey to the people the Native Authority’s determination to enforce the move.

It was clear that between March and July, 1958, the situation had deteriorated to such an extent that:-

  • The chief was entirely unable to carry out his court work
  • Public works such as road making was obstructed;
  • Certain headmen refused to attend meetings to discuss the resettlement problem;
  • Armed assemblies of villagers were taking place at various villages; and
  • The work of census, essential to resettlement endeavour, was being belligerently obstructed.

In addition to these, the education work of the district was being disrupted by the refusal of parents to allow children to attend school. Furthermore, evidence revealed that routine attempts to pay compensation money to people who had already resettled were frustrated by filibustering tactics carried out by two ANC officials, Solomon Mutima and Jacob Machila.

Meanwhile, on August 16, 1958, the district commissioner reported to the provincial commissioner that there were serious unrest amongst  the people of the Chipepo and Simamba areas of Gwembe.

It was apparent that resistance against the move had by now so hardened that a successful enforcement of the Native Authority’s removal order was unlikely unless powers of physical enforcement of the move were conferred.

Earlier, there had been a riot at Sianzembwe’s village which was crushed by the Mobile Police unit. It was hoped that the demonstration of strength  which had proved effective in this village would prove equally effective in the case of  the other villages which were resisting the order to move, including Chisamu.

To this end, on August 29,1958, the provincial commissioner’s party and the police force left camp to carry out the first part of their instructions – to visit the villages in turn, explain once more the provisions of the removal order and make it quite clear to the villagers that if they were still unwilling to obey the terms of that order those terms would nevertheless be enforced.

At the first visit at Chisamu, about 800 yards from the camp, few people were present. To these few the necessary explanation was made, a prepared statement ordering them to move to Lusitu was read out, the police showed themselves in strength and there was no incident.

Thereafter, they proceeded to the other affected villages, where they were confronted by some “armed” villagers, although no serious incident was reported. It was clear, however, that the villagers were in no mood to move to Lusitu.

When all efforts to persuade the villagers to move to Lusitu failed, it was decided to use force. As it were, the first village targeted for attack by the police was Chisamu.

On September 2, 1958, the provincial commissioner spoke to the assembled tribesmen at Chisamu over the loud-hailer. He warned them again that they would have to move to Lusitu, but no reaction was observed.

It was then that on September 8, the provincial commissioner and a Superintendent Barber of the Mobile Unit who was in charge of the police side of the operation, agreed upon an operation order. The order was used by Barber to brief his platoon commanders on the morning of September 9.

The order stated that the aim was to move the headman and people of Chisamu village with their possessions to the Lusitu resettlement area, using force if necessary.

Five platoons were to move from the camp in troop carriers and to alight from them on the north side and on the flanks of the village, from which they were to converge on the village and cordon it off from the spearmen.

If spearmen were to attack the police, teargas smoke shells would be fired, and if this proved ineffective and endangered the lives of the district officers, the kapasus or the police, Greener shoguns were to be discharged at the spearmen’s knees.

As a last resort, .303 rifles were to be used by the police after prior reference to command. Immediately the village had been contained, it was to be isolated by a cordon of three platoons.

If spearmen should attack this cordon, Greener shotguns would be used in its defence. With these preparations, the police were now ready to confront the villagers in Chisamu the following day, on September 10, 1958.

The story as to what happened thereafter has already been narrated, so no need to repeat it here except to add that apart from the dead and injured, many of the villagers were arrested.

It was only after this operation that the villagers agreed, albeit reluctantly, to go to Lusitu.  By the following evening, the entire village had shifted to the new site.

 

NEXT THURSDAY: GOVERNMENT APPOINTS A COMMISSION OF INQUIRY TO INVESTIGATE THE KILLINGS AT CHISAMU VILLAGE. DON’T MISS IT!

  • The author is a Lusaka-based media consultant, recipient of the 1978 Best News Reporter of the Year Award and a former diplomat in South Africa and Botswana. For comments, sms 0977425827/0967146485 or email: pchirwa2009@yahoo.com

 

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