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Heads up – Embassy 39

Soldier, diplomat

Zambia’s new High Commissioner to London, Lt Col Bizwayo Nkunika, has had a career of two halves – first as an army officer, helping to keep his country out of regional conflicts; then as a diplomat and civil servant, rebuilding Zambia after decades of privation.

In 1972, Nkunika started his career in the Zambian Defence Force, which soon became preoccupied with supporting a host of liberation movements in Southern Africa from South Africa’s ANC, to Zimbabwe’s ZANU and ZAPU, Mozambique’s Freelimo as well as those from Angola.

“This made life very tough for us in Zambia,” he recalls. “The apartheid and Rhodesian regimes were ruthless. The carried out daylight air raids on the camps of liberation fighters killed many Zambians and destroyed our infrastructure.”

Trade routes were cut off, sparking energy and commodity shortages – Zambia is the only country in the world to have airlifted oil into the country, the High Commissioner points out.

“This was extremely expensive and had a terrible effect on the economy but our partners in the West were reluctant to give us aid because they were sympathetic with the South African Apartheid regime and repressive Ian Smith in Zimbabwe.”

But by 1990, the tide had turned: the Cold War was over, Namibia, Angola and Zimbabwe had won their independence, apartheid was being dismantled in South Africa and a peace deal ending the civil war in Mozambique had been signed.

Zambia itself had made a peaceful transition to multiparty democracy in 1991, setting an example for the region. So after 20 years of soldiering, it was time for a new challenge for Nkunika. He joined the diplomatic service and was posted as Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria in 1993 where he supervised construction of the Chancery and Residence in Abuja in preparation for the mission’s relocation from Lagos to Abuja.

Nkunika was then promoted and posted as High Commissioner to South Africa in 1998 and presenting credentials to President Mandela was a proud moment. “I felt great satisfaction that in some small way, Zambia had helped Mandela on his journey to the Presidency.”

Nkunika also knew personally all the heavyweights in the Mandela cabinet from their days in exile in Zambia, including Vice President Thabo Mbeki, Foreign Minister Alfred Nzo and Defence Minister Joe Modise.

But while the southern border had stabilised, the DRC and Angola remained in the throes of conflict. “In the DRC Zambia was the first to broker a ceasefire after troops from the neighbouring countries in the East invaded the DRC, before talks moved to South Africa.”

Zambia also played host to the first meeting between the late Jonas Savimbi of Unita and Angolan President Dos Santos in 1994, he adds. “It was a big breakthrough and from then on there were progressive movements towards peace in Angola.”

By the time he had completed his posting as Ambassador to Egypt (2001-2002) where he presented credentials to Former President Hosni Mubarak, Zambia’s borders were finally stable. So he was thrilled to accept an appointment as Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Works and Supply in 2002.

“During our troubled past we had neglected our infrastructure. So it was time for us to reap the rewards of peace and begin a programme of reconstruction,” he says.

For the next eight years he oversaw a huge programme of upgrading roads, bridges and government buildings – “They used to say that if you drove straight in Zambia then you were driving drunk, because a sober driver would have to weave to miss the potholes!” he chuckles.

With commodity prices booming, Zambia’s copper mines became viable again, providing much-needed revenue for the development programme.

China has been a very willing partner in these projects, and as a former soldier Nkunika could not help but be impressed with the speed and efficiency at which Chinese projects were completed, most recently Zambia’s brand-new football stadium in Ndola, a fitting tribute to the 2012 holders of the African Cup of Nations. But as permanent secretary, he was quite a taskmaster too, insisting that investors ensured safe conditions for the workers.

Now in London, Nkunika has British investors and development partners in his sights and he wants Britain and the Commonwealth to help Zambia and other developing countries in the “hard bargaining” at the global financial institutions.

“We need them to adjust some of their parameters to suit the developmental requirements in our countries,” stresses the High Commissioner. “We can’t have funds negotiations and feasibility studies for projects taking five years like the Kazungula bridge across the Zambezi to Botswana. These projects are essentials for our development and we need them now.”

Areas ripe for investment include infrastructure, tourism, education, healthcare and energy.

The High Commissioner also points out that Zambia’s investment framework is one of the most liberal in the world and that corruption is being rooted out by Zambia’s business-minded new President Michael Sata. “He’s eager for change and allergic to corruption,” says the High Commissioner.

The High Commissioner is planning a campaign to put Zambia back on the map in the UK. The new All-Party Parliamentary Group for Zambia will enhance political ties and he hopes to boost people-to-people links by encouraging more British visitors to the country – “And I want them to understand that the bigger Victoria Falls is on the Zambian side!” he smiles.

There is no doubt that, whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom, High Commissioner Nkunika will always be a great defender of Zambia’s cause.

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HE Lt Col Bizwayo Nkunika

“During our troubled past we had neglected our infrastructure. So now it is time for us to reap the rewards of peace and begin a programme of reconstruction”

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