Zambia’s former president Kenneth Kaunda dies aged 97


Image credit: Stephane De Sakutin/AFP

Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding president and liberation hero, has died. He was 97


Kaunda was at a military hospital in Lusaka where he was being treated for pneumonia, his son, Kambarage, said on Thursday.


The former president had been feeling unwell and had been admitted to the Maina Soko Medical Centre in Lusaka earlier this week.


A man of great personal charm, he was hailed as a modernising force in the continent despite his initial rejection of the concept of multiparty democracy.


Kaunda ruled Zambia from 1964, when the southern African nation won its independence from Britain, until 1991, and afterwards become one of Africa’s most committed activists against HIV/AIDS.


As a dedicated pan-Africanist, he began the task of building a new Zambia, free to determine its own way in international affairs.


“On behalf of the entire nation and on my own behalf, I pray that the entire Kaunda family is comforted as we mourn our first president and true African icon,” President Edgar Lungu said in a message on his Facebook page.


Although Zambia’s copper-based economy mostly failed under his leadership, Kaunda will be remembered for his role as an anti-colonial fighter who stood up to white minority rule in Southern African countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.


Kenneth David Kaunda was born on 28 April 1924 at a mission station near the border between what was then Northern Rhodesia and the Congo.


The youngest of eight children, Kaunda lost his father when he was eight years old. His mother was a teacher – a prolific position for Zambian women in those days.


A prolific writer, he published a number of books advancing his ideology of African Socialism, which was picked up by other African leaders including Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana and Julius Nyerere in Tanzania.


He started his political career as the organising secretary of the Northern Rhodesian African National Congress (NRANC) in the Northern Province of Zambia.


In 1958, he broke from the NRANC to form the Zambian African National Congress (ZANC) but it was banned a year later, and Kaunda was imprisoned in Lusaka for nine months.


ZANC became the United Party for National Development (UNIP) in 1959.


The following year, Kaunda was released from prison and elected president of the nationalist, left-of-centre UNIP. He then started organising civil disobedience known as the Cha-cha-cha campaign.


Kaunda inspects troops shortly after Zambia's independence (Getty images)

Kaunda stood as a Unip candidate in the 1962 elections which saw an uneasy coalition with the African National Congress (ANC) take power in the legislature.


The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland was dissolved at the end of 1963 and, a month later, Kaunda was elected prime minister of Northern Rhodesia. The country, renamed as Zamia, gained full independence in Oct 1964 with Kaunda as its first president.


In 1969, at huge cost, he nationalised the copper mines, which accounted for 90% of the country's foreign exchange earnings. But the price of copper collapsed, imported oil prices soared, and the economy, already weakened, was soon in serious trouble.


At the time of independence Zambia was one of the richest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, but by 1991 it had debts of $8bn.


Kaunda was not slow in taking a firm line against political opposition. In 1972 he declared a one-party state, a situation that was not relaxed until 1991, when free elections were held.


At the time of independence Zambia was one of the richest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, but by 1991 it had debts of $8bn.


Kaunda was not slow in taking a firm line against political opposition. In 1972 he declared a one-party state, a situation that was not relaxed until 1991, when free elections were held.


In foreign policy, Kaunda provided logistical help to other African liberation movements, including the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the breakaway Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU).


He harboured political exiles from South Africa in his country, and clashed with Margaret Thatcher in particular, over her opposition to sanctions against the apartheid regime. It was an issue that threatened the very future of the Commonwealth.


The cracks began to appear in Kaunda's rule in late 1980. There were reports of an attempt to overthrow his government, and a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed over much of the country.


During the next 10 years, two further attempts to topple him were reported. The last of these, in the summer of 1990, followed food riots in the capital, Lusaka, and the Copperbelt region, over the government's crash austerity programme.


Kaunda had continued to engage in national politics and in 1996 tried to stand for the presidency. However, the Chiluba government changed the constitution so that anyone whose parents came from outside the country was deemed a foreigner and could therefore not run for office.


Chiluba later attempted to deport Kaunda alleging that he was a Malawian. In 1997, Chiluba threw Kaunda in jail on Christmas Day for allegedly being involved in a foiled coup attempt.


In 1999, during Chiluba’s rule, he was declared stateless by a Zambian High Court, but he challenged this decision in the Supreme Court of Zambia, which declared him to be a Zambian citizen the following year.


Kaunda became an AIDS campaigner, announcing publicly one of his sons had died from the illness.


Throughout the African continent, many streets, buildings and airports are named after him. And even in old age, he repeatedly raised his voice in public against perceived injustices as well as the oppression of minorities.

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