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Zambia Profile (A Brief History)

Updated: Oct 31, 2020

Zambia, officially the Republic of Zambia, is a land-locked country in south-central Africa. The population of Zambia is 15 million people and the country is bordered by the Democratic Republic of Congo to the north, Tanzania to the north-east, Malawi to the east, and Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola to the south. Zambia is a multi-ethnic country with several indigenous ethnic groups including the Bemba, Tonga, Lozi, Chewa, Nsenga, Tumbuka, Ngoni, and Lunda. The official language of Zambia is English but there are more than 20 recognized regional languages. Lusaka is the capital city and the largest city in the country. Most Zambians live near the economic hubs of Lusaka or the Copperbelt Province, a mineral rich province.

Early history of Zambia

In 1921, the Golden Hill skull, the first human remains to be seen in Africa, was discovered in Zambia; attesting to the presence of ancient humans in the area more than 200,000 years ago.

The Khoisan’s were the earliest inhabitants of the territory now known as Zambia. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers, and they dwelt alone in almost the entire Zambian territory up until the fourth century AD when the Bantu people began to migrate into the territory. The Bantu-speaking people would eventually displace the Khoisan’s out of the territory.

The Bantu expansion refers to the migrations of the original Bantu speaking group of migrants roughly about 3,500 years ago, from West Africa into Sub-Saharan Africa. In the process the Bantu speaking settlers displaced or absorbed the inhabitants of Central Africa. The primary evidence of expansion lies in the linguistic core of the Bantu languages, which comprises of languages originating from Cameroon and Nigeria, West Africa.

The expansion is believed to have taken place between 3,000 and 2,000 years ago into two main waves, the first proceeding directly east towards East-Africa, and the second and largest went south along the African coast towards Gabon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and as far south as South Africa.

Along the Zambezi River in Southern Zambia are the Tonga who were believed to have been the earliest ethnic groups to settle in the southern province. The Nkoya people later joined the Tonga tribe, around the late 12th and early 13th centuries.

The population grew as agricultural activities intensified, and by the 12th century an advanced society had emerged in the region. The territory had rich deposits of copper, which was mined by the natives and probably used as a medium of exchange. As copper mining activities increased alongside trading of ivory, the region advanced and grew both economically and politically.

Between the 16th and 19th centuries, four kingdoms had been established in the territory. The kingdoms were the Kazembe-Lunda in the north, the Bemba in the north-east, the Lozi in the west, and the Chewa in the east.

By the ending of the 18 century the Barotseland kingdom of the Lozi people located in the upper Zambezi River and the Mwata-Kazembe kingdom of the Luapala were the most powerful states in the Zambian region.

In the early 19th century, the arrival of the Makololo clan from South Africa who were fleeing from Zulu Kingdom would settle in the area. The Makololo people conquered the Lozi people and hijacked rulership of Barotseland. However, following the death of the Makololo leader, Sebetwane, the Lozi group re-claimed their kingdom and ousted the Makololo people out of the territory.

Arrival of the Europeans in Zambia

European explorers did not infiltrate the territory of Zambia as early as they did in other regions along the coast of west Africa probably since the region is landlocked, and they would have had to traversed many kingdoms. In fact, the territory had no direct contact with non-Africans until the arrival of Arab and Portuguese traders in the 18th century.

The Portuguese were the first Europeans to visit Zambia sometime between 1720 and 1820. They sought to form an alliance with the local chief of Mwata-Kazembe kingdom, and to establish a Portuguese trading route within the territory.

In 1851 the British explorer, David Livingstone, started his exploration of the Upper Zambezi River, which he would later re-name Victoria Falls after Queen Victoria. By the end of the 19th century, British hunters and traders started settling in the Zambian territory.

Colonization of Zambia

In 1888, with the objective of exploring Central Africa for commercial and political gains the British obtained concessions from local chiefs in the area. In that same year, Zambia and the neighboring Zimbabwe were proclaimed British spheres of influence; and were re-named Northern and Southern Rhodesia, respectively. The British South Africa Company was authorized to administer the two territories.

By 1985 the company would discover the rich deposits of copper in the Northern Rhodesia region (Zambia), after noticing the way copper is commonly worn as ornaments by the natives.

In 1923 Southern Rhodesia was annexed and given the right to govern itself, while the Northern Rhodesia was made a protectorate and placed under the administration of a British colonial office in 1924. Upon the discovery that the region on the Upper Zambezi had massive copper deposits, more than the British explorers initially estimated, serious mining activities were commenced in the area. By 1928, Northern Rhodesia had grown to become a major world exporter of copper and was nicknamed the Copperbelt. The mining sector of the Zambian territory was developed further; and as of 1938 the region accounted for 13% of the world's copper extraction.

Heavy taxation and lack of concern for the safety of the African mineworkers led to recurrent strike actions against the British authorities. In 1953, after several negotiations, Northern and Southern Rhodesia were merged with Nyasaland (Malawi) to form the Central African Federation.

Independence of Zambia

The newly formed federation was plagued by crises, the majority of which were triggered by the Northern Rhodesia fraction who demanded greater participation in the governance of the federation. By 1962, the legislative council of which were majority Africans passed a resolution seeking the secession of the controversial Northern Rhodesia from the Federation.

Consequently, the Central Africa Federation was dissolved on December 31, 1963; and on October 24, 1964 Northern Rhodesia was granted independence and became the Republic of Zambia, with Kenneth Kaunda elected as its first prime minister.

Later in 1964, Zambia adopted a presidential system of rule and Kaunda was elected president. He was re-elected unopposed in the 1968 national elections under the United National Independence Party (UNIP).

In 1972 the president banned all political parties except the UNIP, and Zambia adopted a one-party system. In this way he secured the presidential position for himself from 1964 till 1988, although not without dissensions from both within and outside his party.

Following extensive protests from the people against the one-party system and the rising costs of food items, the ban on political parties was lifted and Zambia began a multiparty election system in 1991.

Economy of Zambia

After independence copper sustained the economy of Zambia and continued to flourish but would later experience a sharp decline between 1975 - 1990. From the 1970s, the USSR flooded the market as the second largest producer of copper, prices dropped drastically and that with the economy of Zambia. Copper and other mining operations still contribute a significant portion to Zambia’s 23 billion-dollar GDP.


Although farming represents just 3% of GDP it employs 54% of the workforce, with farming only being produced on a fraction (15%) of arable land there is large opportunity for growth in the sector.


The mining industry represents 36% of GDP and employs 11% of the workforce. Copper is the country’s largest export but growth in the textile and agro-processing sector will be larger share of the exports in the future.


The services sector represents 54% of GDP and employs 34% of the workforce. The sector features a growing retail sector and burgeoning tourism industry.

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