It is almost 20 years to the day since I flew high above Africa, with a TV crew jammed into a bumpy light plane. It was a white-knuckle ride through clouds into the jaws of a military coup.
We woke on that October morning, in 1997, in Harare, to news of a military coup in neighboring Zambia. Given that Zambians are not exactly warlike people, this breakfast declaration by a group calling itself the National Redemption Council was startling. It was going to put in place a military junta to carry out live executions of traitors on TV.
The frontman was a Captain Solo – in real life Captain Steven Lungu of the Zambian army – who gave President Frederick Chiluba three hours to surrender, threatening bloody revenge to anyone who stood in his way.
All commercial flights to Zambia were cancelled in the chaos. For me, it meant the first trauma of the day; we had to charter a flight from the aptly named Bush Pilots in Harare – the only people crazy enough to fly into a coup. The pilot was a young guy who looked like he should have been at school rather than flying a plane.
As we bumped through the clouds he wriggled in his seat and to my surprise brought out a box of cigarettes and lit one. On his first puff, the message came through the radio that the authorities had shut down the airport at Lusaka.
“I’ll have to drop you off in the bush near the border,” says the young man in the matter-of-fact voice of a taxi driver. I thought he was joking until we touched down in the middle of nowhere with game grazing nearby. The crew offloaded its ton of cameras, lights and microphones – there was no lightweight digital technology in those days.
I set off across the baked earth to a farmhouse a couple of kilometers away. I shouted until the farmer came out and asked if he could lend us his truck. I jumped on the back and minutes later I was riding to the rescue and waving through the heat’s haze, with a big smile on my face, to the crew standing like specks on the horizon.
Half an hour later we were cursing, sweating, and humping the kit through the crowded immigration hall at Chirundu. Then, the remaining 120km on foot? We had no choice but to stand on that towering steel semi-circle that is the Birchenough Bridge and hitchhike. Luckily three heavy lorries, in convoy, from South Africa stopped and took us on board one in each of the three cabs. By the time we got to Lusaka, the coup was over. It turned out to be more comic opera than dogs of war.
It all started over a drink in the small hours in a Lusaka barracks. Captain Lungu and fellow officer Captain Jack Chiti sat complaining about the government and their grievances with the army. Just before dawn, in that way drunken people can do, they agreed to overthrow the government. The two captains went into the barracks, woke their men and told them to fire up the armoured vehicles. Most of them thought it was an exercise; but as they smashed through the gates of the Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) most of the soldiers saw the coup attempt for what it was and pressed on. No doubt, a number saw themselves as ministers and generals under the new regime. Within the hour they had taken over the ZNBC and Captain Solo began broadcasting threats.
The crackdown was swift. Loyal government soldiers, armed to the teeth, invaded ZNBC and sent the coup plotters scattering. The biggest problem, one of the soldiers told me afterwards, was winkling out the once brave, now terrified, soldiers of the coup. Apparently, many of them hid in cupboards at the ZNBC and it took a long time to find them.
As for Captain Lungu, soldiers slapped him out of the broadcasting station with his hands up. He ended up in that position so familiar to coup plotters; pinned to the ground with an army boot on his throat. The Zambian Information Service gleefully gave us the pictures of this.
The trial took years. The court sentenced Captain Lungu to death in 2003; he appealed and was handed 20 years in prison. Former President Rupiah Banda granted him pardon in 2010 and he eked out an impoverished life until he died two years later, aged 50, of TB. Captain Chiti was also freed and died of cancer, in August 2004, in a Lusaka hospital.
Both men suffered sad, lonely ends in return for their few hours of power; a short-lived, bungled and, thankfully bloodless, coup that is a mere footnote in Zambia’s history.