Non-Aligned Intelligence Exchanges: Interviewing Wilted Phiri

During my research in Zambia, I had the privilege to visit and interview Wilted Phiri together with co-researchers Joy Phiri and Teckson Njovu. Wilted Phiri was one of the key “behind the scenes” cadres of the United National Independence Party (UNIP) and an important figure in the Southern African anticolonial movement of the 1960s and 1970s. While trying to obtain his contact, most people told me the chances of Phiri agreeing to an interview were slim as he is a “man of intelligence.” To my surprise, Wilted Phiri agreed to meet us without hesitation over the phone and invited the research team to his farm on the outskirts of Lusaka.

In the early 1960s, Phiri served as UNIP’s information officer in Cairo, where he agitated for Zambia’s independence, publishing printed materials, broadcasting radio programs, and preparing the Zambian delegation for the Second Afro-Asian Solidarity Conference in Algeria. In his Cairo days, Phiri maintained contact with many embassies from socialist countries (the Soviet Union, Bulgaria, Cuba, China, etc.) and Scandinavian countries supporting decolonization. According to Phiri, many UNIP militants were closer to the Chinese communists at the time as the Soviets insisted that economically underdeveloped countries like Zambia must go through a capitalist stage of development first before striving for socialism. Phiri also remembers that next to the Chinese, the most reliable ally in UNIP’s struggle against British colonial rule was the Yugoslavs, who helped UNIP politically and financially, but also by training UNIP militants for combat in case the political negotiations with London were to fail.

After Zambia gained independence in 1964, Phiri became the Director-General of the Zambia Security and Intelligence Service (ZSIS) and Minister of Internal Affairs. In this position, he coordinated relations with national liberation movements from Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, all of which used Zambia as a political hub and operations base. Next to solidarity with the neighboring Africans, the political figures in Zambia never forgot their foreign allies against colonial rule. The contacts with Yugoslavia evolved to the state level during the second half of the 1960s and 1970s, with the Zambian army and intelligence receiving training, logistical support, and armaments from the Yugoslav comrades and Phiri making frequent trips to Yugoslavia. In describing this relationship, Phiri often said, “The Yugoslavs opened our eyes to the world.”

I wondered what he meant by this, as UNIP was well-networked in the global decolonization movement even without Yugoslav assistance. After rehearing the interview, I believe Phiri refers to the fact that Yugoslav intelligence and diplomacy were ready to share information about delicate geopolitical issues with its trusted Non-Aligned partners more willingly than more prominent Cold War players such as the Soviet Union or China. These intelligence data were vital for Zambia as a “frontier state” in the decolonization struggles of the 1970s, surrounded by Portuguese colonies and white settler regimes. However, Phiri maintains the exchanges with the Yugoslavs were not one-sided. In the interview, he was clear about the inability to discuss certain matters or reveal too many details. Still, one interesting operation hinted at by Phiri was a joint action between the Yugoslav and Zambian intelligence to target Croatian diaspora extreme right-wing groups training in South Africa.

Today Phiri is living as a retiree on a farm near Lusaka. Despite his old age, he is still very agile with a sharp sense of humor and follows political issues. He organizes educational classes for the land workers employed on his farm. He is eager to encourage young Zambians to become politically active.

Goran Musić, 12.06.2023