When jerabos brought Copperbelt on its knees

[By Michael Munyimba]

The eruption of violence at Malula bar in Kitwe that evening could not be mistaken for jokes, neither could it be confused for any form of romance of the Mafia.

This was power-show, this was real-life drama unfolding before dozens of drunk patrons of the small bar, patrons whose only desire was to drink, intoxicate their minds and merry. But that was not to be, it was a dream from which they were to be rudely awakened, a terrifying nightmare that was slowly manifesting into sad reality. Three Land Cruisers had skid to a halt outside, and out jumped a battalion of youths covered in expensive knee-tattered Stone Wash jeans and muscle-cut t-shirts who majestically trooped inside; their group leader holding a semi-automatic assault rifle in his left hand. With great confidence and unmistaken authority, the leader sauntered to the barman and whispered incomprehensibles in his ear amidst the deafening noise from the old juke box that rumbled in inconsistent hiccups as it hung in solitude on the cracky red brick wall in the corner of the room, while drunken patrons unstably danced rhumba and chikokoshi. But suddenly, the music stopped in midway. Confused, the dancers turned to the barman, but he was quick to take to the floor as everyone stared at him in grim silence, and standing next to him was the leader of the group that had just trooped in. They called him ‘King Manson’, even though he didn’t look much of what one would expect of a king. “Alo, guys, bonse, kabiyeni, bwaila!” The barman rumbled on top of his voice, loosely translated to mean “could you all get the hell out of here, it’s late!” Time: 6:24 PM. Baffled, the customers could not understand what this lunatic was talking about, why was he chasing them at this early hour of the weekend? And in a second, loud murmurs broke out among the customers, with everyone telling someone something, but nobody was listening to anyone. It was just total cacophony! And when they realised they were being chased away to allow only 12 unknown youths that had unceremoniously stormed the bar, that’s when true pandemonium broke out. The local njombas and other community gangs sprang up from their seats to counter-force their right to be there and not be bullied around. But King Manson was not a fool, a young youth in his late twenties. He had encountered such resistance in surrounding areas before, some which had truly been violent. In fact, that’s the reason he never forgot to carry that deadly assault weapon he held in his hand. And in a flash, as the patrons surged forward to attack him and his group, the barrel of his weapon was pointing at the bar ceiling; and as he squeezed that soft trigger, the gun spoke, perforating the ceiling a hundred times in a blink of an eye. Women screamed, men dashed for instant under tiny chairs and behind the bar counter while others scurried in all directions. But the exit became too narrow, so they staggered in their useless scramble to flee from the death that was spewing from the muzzle of the savage gun!

And by the time the echo of the vicious voice o the gun subsided, the entire bar was empty and deathly silence had befallen both the inside and outside such that a pin-drop could be heard. Even the streets outside had suddenly been deserted as though everyone had relocated to another planet. Only 12 people had remained. The jerabos!

Hypothetically, that lone, but not only incidence paints a rough picture of what I’m about to write.

Around 2010 or so, Copperbelt was visited by a new siege of terror by a group of youths in Kitwe and surrounding towns. They called themselves jerabos, which can be defined as ‘jail boy’ in Zambia’s lingua franca. These were illegal miners recruited by unscrupulous men to scavenge for copper remains in surrounding mines. It is believed that their actual inception was in the late 90s, in the Chiluba era.

But these were ordinary illegal miners, they were a group that was later to transform itself into some vicious, untouchable ‘mafia’ kind of mob or organisation. It was some mib whose boss had made millions of kwacha from illegal copper mining while terrorising communities, making their leaders such as King Manson (not real name) become so powerful and feared, commanding great respect from the residents of Copperbelt – including the police! Yes, Manson and his men had become true kings, riding expensive luxury automobiles and building mansions only seen in dreams and movies, and throwing huge sums of kwacha notes to people on streets and to police at roadblocks and at every police station; thereby automatically ‘buying’ immunity against prosecution for whatever acts of crime.

Indeed, bosses like Manson could walk into your house and order your wife to go spend the night with them and you would do absolutely nothing! He would stop when the traffic lights were green at pick hour, come out of his car in the middle of the road and begin to converse on his phone; blocking dozens of cars behind him and go through red lights even in the presence of traffic cops, and no one would say or do anything. They would beat whoever they wished for no reason and drink free beers at any bar if they wished to and the barman would salute and thank them. But, unlike the cadres, jerabos only were on the Copperbelt where the mines were. Copperbelt had truly been taken hostage, and the ransom the residents paid for their freedom and lives was high.

In 2015, then president Edgar Lungu recognised the jerabos as legal miners and called their bosses to a round table at his official residence where a deal was cut from which the gang was granted authority over the Black Mountain. This is a huge copper mine tailing dump in the middle of Kitwe owned by Tranjin Maolin to excavate copper tailings in exchange for political support as the 2016 elections drew closer. Unfortunately, a bad accident occurred shortly after that, killing several gang members when it suddenly slumped and buried them underground; a blow that invited so much ridicule on government and the presidency as to why these illegal activities were allowed in the first place. And shortly after that, their great leader Manson died at some hospital after some illness, with his funeral conducted in a stadium where a number of government ministers were present to give him a ‘heroes’ sendoff.

Well, I won’t be far from the truth if I say that King Manson was a giant in his own respect, a king who went to the grave with all the group’s power, glory and influence. And since then, jerabos have never been the same again!

With the new dawn, we shall wait, watch and see if such gangs shall ever again manifest on the Zambian soul. I doubt!

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