My first close encounter with an African election campaign and vote was in 1980, when I was still a fumbling lad barely out of my teens. That vote ended in a shambles, with widespread allegations that it was rigged for the Uganda People’s Congress (UPC) of Milton Obote, who went on to become president.
The next one was in Zambia in 1991. I was beginning to find my footing as a journalist, and visited in mid-1991 as the campaigns for a vote scheduled for October heated up. I met a young fiery journalist called Fred M'membe, who was soon to become a larger-than-life figure in Zambian journalism. He told me Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding president who by that point had been in power for nearly 27 years, was toast.
The Zambian election was going to be the second in a series held after the end of the East-West Cold War, when one-party governments, like what Kaunda had led, and military regimes were crumbling or being challenged seriously for the first time by upstart opposition parties.
The first one had been in Benin, West Africa. Military dictator Mathieu Kerekou had allowed a national conference in 1990 which all but stripped him of power, and pushed reforms that led to elections in March 1991.
Kerekou was thrashed in the election by Nicephore Soglo, and conceded. Kerekou had done something that hadn’t happened on mainland Africa in the post-independence period since Somalia’s first president Aden Abdulle Osman Daar lost the elections in 1967 and graciously handed over power.
There was puzzlement and disbelief, and some even joked that only a Benin voodoo spell could explain Kerekou accepting defeat. It was difficult to see Kaunda being defeated. He was no Kerekou. A lovable velvet-gloved one-party autocrat, Kaunda was sophisticated. He was abstemious. He had easily the world’s largest collection of pristine white handkerchiefs that he clutched like a comfort doll. He wrote books, played musical instruments, knew his golf, he was a pan-Africanist and was a towering figure of African liberation. Surely, M'membe had to be wrong.
We watched from afar. October 1991 came, and a diminutive trade unionist called Frederick Chiluba at the head of the Movement for Multi-party Democracy routed KK. The popular word to describe the result at that time was “thunderbolt”. Surely, Kaunda wouldn’t disappear “just like that” into the night.
He did. At a press conference Chiluba revealed that Kaunda had called him, conceded and congratulated him. In his small-mindedness, Chiluba later persecuted Kaunda, but he really couldn’t take away his grace.
He aged like fine wine out of office, the follies of his rule forgiven and revised with the passage of time and the imprudence of his successors.
Not too long ago, our deputy editor at then Mail & Guardian Africa went to Zambia and visited with Kaunda. He came away awestruck. As he left, Kaunda insisted on hobbling out on his walking stick and directing his car to drive out clockwise.
Kaunda died on June 17. He tried to order his corner of the universe. Life gave him 97 years to do it. He must have died a happy man.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]