Leaders mourn Kaunda as ‘Africa’s statesman’

Saturday June 19 2021
Kenneth Kaunda and Olusegun Obasanjo.

Former presidents Kenneth Kaunda (Zambia) and Olusegun Obasanjo (Nigeria) at a farewell ceremony for late Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe on September 14, 2019. PHOTO | FILE

By The EastAfrican

By the time he quit politics in the year 2000, Kenneth Kaunda had lived more than four decades in public life, savouring political victories and enduring humiliations. Yet he styled himself as a soft-spoken, deep-thinking charismatic politician always waving a white handkerchief.

When he suddenly died on Thursday aged 97, leaders across Africa praised his role in encouraging the nascent roots of integration.

African statesman

Kaunda’s mark on the continent, said Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta, made him an “African statesman,” especially after hosting various liberation groups in Lusaka, and his continued fight for the cause of Africa in later years.

Countries in the southern Africa region have declared days of national mourning in honour of Kaunda. President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa described Kaunda as a man who, after leading his country to Independence, helped other countries realise their freedom.

“We will never be able to repay the debt of gratitude that we owe to President Kaunda.” Ramaphosa was referring to Lusaka’s role in hosting African National Congress militants, then in a covert anti-apartheid war against a racist South Africa. Once declared a proscribed group, ANC leaders continued their struggle outside South Africa, hosted in Lusaka and Dar es Salaam.


ANC and other regional liberation groups, the MPLA of Angola, Frelimo of Mozambique, Namibia’s Swapo and ZAPU of Zimbabwe, all found refuge in Kaunda’s Lusaka. Most of these political movements later took power in their respective countries as independence parties.

“Lusaka had representation from most of the liberation movements in southern Africa. He also welcomed Ugandan exiles, when we were fighting the dictatorship of Idi Amin,” said Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

“Many Ugandans got jobs and education in Zambia,” he added.

As one of the founders of the Organisation of African Unity, the precursor of the African Union, Kaunda was among leaders who sought continental unity. Others were Julius Nyerere, Jomo Kenyatta, Emperor Haile Selassie and Kwame Nkrumah.

African Union chair Moussa Faki Mahamat spoke of Kaunda’s death as “indescribable loss not only to Zambia but to the continent.”

Life and times

Former president Kaunda lived a quiet life, surviving health scares and hospitalisations but always appeared physically fit. He once told an interviewer that his diet consisted of vegetables and fruit salad, as well as raw seeds and nuts.

The son of a Malawian immigrant preacher, who settled in Northern Rhodesia, today’s Zambia, in the early 1900s, Kaunda was accepted as a Zambian.

Like many of his peers, Kaunda was no saint. He adopted socialism which his successor Fredrick Chiluba fiercely criticised. Kaunda lost to Chiluba in the 1991 election, and gracefully handed over power. Nyerere had quit and required; Kenyatta had died in office in 1978 and Nkrumah was toppled in a coup.

Kaunda’s trouble was formented by the fact that under Zambia’s one party rule, the United Independence Party [UNIP], the sitting president was automatically the presidential candidate. There was no room for competition.

Chiluba, who led the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, ended Kaunda’s 27-year rule in a landmark election by promising to dismantle Kaunda’s socialist policies.

Kaunda was swept away by a wave of democratic changes on the continent with a growing population of college youth learning from success stories elsewhere and tired shortage of essential commodities.

Chiluba humiliated him further by declaring him stateless, so he could not run again, through a new law that targeted citizens whose parents were not born in Zambia before 1900, specifically targeting Kaunda’s family. He was denied a retirement package and faced freedom restrictions.

In a self-titled biography, An incentive for Prosperity, Zambia’s third president Levy Patrick Mwanawasa recounted to his biographer Amos Malupenga that:

“…I had to force him [Mr Chiluba] to give Kaunda his first salary [after leaving office]. …I said [to Chiluba], ‘you will also be a former president at some point and you would want to be properly treated’. That is when he gave me a cheque to go and give Kaunda. Dr Kaunda got his first cheque as an entitlement shortly before I resigned as vice-president.”

“…soon after leaving State House, Dr. Kenneth Kaunda was detained and searched on an allegation that he had stolen some books from State House…I advised that it was not necessary to resort to those levels… he was investigated and nothing came out of that investigation.”

Amendment Act No. 18 of 1996 of the Zambian Constitution in Article 34(3)(b) stated: “A person shall be qualified to be a candidate for election as President if…both his parents are Zambians by birth or descent…”

In August 1997, with lawyer Dr Rodger Chongwe, Kaunda was shot and wounded after addressing a political rally in the small mining town of Kabwe, 140 kilometres north of the capital Lusaka.

Dr Kaunda and Dr Chongwe blamed the state police.

Shortly after a failed coup in October 1997, Dr Kaunda and many other opposition leaders were detained on suspicion that they were behind the army-staged coup attempt. He denied links to the Coup.

But in a bloody turn of events, Dr Kaunda’s son Maj Wezi Kaunda, widely anticipated to take over leadership of his father’s party and even run for presidency, was shot dead on November 4, 1999 in a carjacking. The Kaunda family and Zambians to date believe the death of Maj Kaunda, a former army officer then, serving chairman of UNIP in Lusaka was political assassination.