By Obadiah Mailafia
THE founding-father of independent Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, passed away last week, Thursday 17 June. He was 97.
During 1990, I travelled from England to the Copperbelt Region of Zambia for field work on my doctoral dissertation. I evaluated the impact of EU-funded projects in Luanshya, Chingola, Ndola and Kitwe. Zambia’s countryside was glorious and breath-taking.
My mentors in Lusaka were, Dr Jacob Mwanza, former Governor of the Bank of Zambia; distinguished statesman and prince of Barotseland, Akashambwata Mbikusita-Lewanika; and Nicholas Theodore Bull, grandson of the Anglo-German financier and art connoisseur, Otto Beit and husband of eminent historian and former cabinet minister Mutumba Mainga Bull. I shall never forget the warm hospitality of our envoy in Lusaka at the time, H. E. Ambassador Lawrence Agubuzu; currently His Royal Majesty, Igwe Lawrence Okolio Chikezie Agubuzu Eze Ogbunechendo of Ezema Olo, Chairman of Enugu State Council of Traditional Rulers and Chancellor of the National Open University of Nigeria (NOUN). He gave me free lodgings on the premises of the High Commission and often invited me to dinner with his family.
God has always sent me destiny-helpers at every crucial stage of my life and career.
I arrived Zambia during the heady days of transition to multi-party democracy. Zambians had tired of Kaunda and “the Old Guard”. Aid agencies and international financial institutions were in favour of regime change. In the November 1991 elections, thanks to its foreign backers, Frederick Chiluba’s Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) defeated Kaunda’s United Independent Party (UNIP) by a 75 percent landslide. Chiluba was sworn-in as President on 2 November, 1991.
Kenneth David Kaunda was born on 28 April 1924 at Lubwa Mission in Chinsali, north western Zambia, the son of missionary teachers from Nyasaland (Malawi). His father, Reverend David Kaunda, was a priest of the Church of Scotland Mission while his mother was a trained teacher. He went to the local schools before training as a teacher at Munali Training Centre during 1941-43.
Kaunda was a colonial schoolteacher at the time agitations began against plans to create the Rhodesia and Nyasaland Federation. In 1951, he became Organising Secretary for the Northern Rhodesian African National Congress. He later moved to Lusaka to assume the post of Secretary-General of the African National Congress. Harry Nkumbula was President of the movement. The anticolonial grievances centred mostly on racism, discrimination, harsh labour conditions and the white-dominated Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland that was created in 1953.
In 1955, Nkumbula and Kaunda were imprisoned for two months for illegal political pamphleteering. The two later drifted apart when it seemed that Nkumbula was willing to compromise with the colonial order. In June 1959, Kaunda was thrown into jail again. Whilst in prison, his colleagues, led by Mainza Chona, broke ranks with the ANC to form the United National Independence Party (UNIP). When he was released from prison, he was offered the UNIP presidency.
In 1961, he visited African-American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr in Atlanta. In the following year, he launched a civil disobedience campaign in his own homeland. After the 1962 elections, he joined the UNIP-ANC Coalition Government as Minister of Local Government and Social Welfare. He later won the independence elections of October 1964 and was sworn-in as Prime Minister — later President — when the country converted to a presidential constitution.
At independence, Zambia had only 109 university graduates. Copper was the mainstay of the economy; much of it controlled by multinational corporations. His education reforms led to massive improvements in school enrolment. The University of Zambia was established in 1966 to train the new crop of administrators, teachers, doctors and engineers.
Zambia opted for a centrally planned economic model anchored on import-substitution. The “commanding heights” of the economy, including mining, were taken over by the state. In the first decade, Zambia was prosperous. The wars in Indochina and Vietnam boosted global demand for copper. The windfalls were invested in human capital and infrastructures. Standards of living improved remarkably.
Following the so-called “Lumpa Uprisings” associated with the self-styled “prophetess” Alice Leshina, and an attempted military coup in 1972, Kaunda outlawed the multi-party system in favour of one-party “participatory democracy”.
Internationally, he pursued a pan-Africanist, non-Aligned foreign policy; maintaining close links with China and Yugoslavia. In 1975, the Chinese commissioned the 1,860 km Tazara railway from Kapiri Mposhi in central Zambia to the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, the first ever mega-project to be constructed by the Chinese in Africa. Lusaka also became a base for the Southern African liberation movements. The country paid a heavy price for supporting the liberation movements. Zambia was one of the few countries to recognise Biafra. Many exile Igbo professors and professionals were welcome to the country.
By the 80’s, Zambia underwent a rather severe balance of payments crisis. From 1977 to 1990, the GDP fell by a staggering 30 percent. Kaunda resorted to borrowing from the Bretton Woods institutions, with their burdensome structural adjustment conditionalities. The Kwacha was devalued. Standards of living fell dramatically.
Kaunda apparently fell under the spell of an Indian Rasputin called Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, to whom he had allegedly promised more than a quarter of Zambia’s virgin land ostensibly to build a “heaven on earth”. The scion of Christian missionary parents was now taking orders from an illiterate Hindu Guru from India.
After retiring in 1985, his friend Mwalimu Julius Nyerere of Tanzania advised him to do the same. He would not listen. It took a failed military coup in 1990, followed by widespread riots, for him to see reason. Kaunda was a reluctant convert to democracy. But it was to his credit that he finally took a bow and left in 2001.
The Chiluba MMD administration placed him under House arrest following an alleged coup attempt. When he indicated interest in running again for president in 1996, the government declared him a “stateless person”. He fought all the way to the Supreme Court to salvage his Zambian nationality. He survived an assassination attempt in 1997, when he was literally grazed by a marksman’s bullet. One of his sons, Wezzi, was shot dead in front of the family home in 1999. This is on top of the tragedy of another son, Masuzgo, who died from the holocaust of HIV/AIDS in 1986.
In his last years, Kaunda often served as a Goodwill Ambassador for his country. He also supported several charitable causes. For most of his adult life, he was a vegetarian; and in the last 30 years, ate only uncooked food, most of it lentils, vegetables and fruits.
I once found myself in his company in the business class cabin on a flight from Lagos to Abuja in April, 2006. Mid-way through the flight, the pilot announced that we had in our midst the illustrious Kenneth Kaunda, former President of Zambia, and that it was also his birthday. There followed a thunderous ovation. At 82, he looked as strong as an ox.
Kaunda was not a philosopher-king in the mould of J. K. Nyerere. But he was very well-read. He declared his political philosophy to be Humanism, a combination of Fabian socialism, Christian ethics and African communalism. He was once declared:“The power which establishes a state is violence; the power which maintains it is violence; the power which eventually overthrows it is violence.” He was an authoritarian, but certainly not your blood thirsty African despot. He wielded power with restraint, compassion and justice. He was incorruptible. He gave Zambians a sense of belonging to one nation. Not for him the vicious tribalism that has become a curse on our continent.
Unfortunately, his economic policies were rather disastrous. African socialism simply meant distribution of poverty and misery. And unlike Nelson Mandela and Nyerere, he did not know when to quit the stage.
The Zambia Kaunda has left behind is, sadly, a highly debt-distressed country, owing international creditors $12 billion, with a 96% of debt-to-GDP ratio. Zambia owes $3 billion to China. The Chinese are insisting on taking over mining and other assets if the government continues to default on its repayment obligations. Zambia is once again in talks with the IMF over its unsustainable debt burden. The government can hardly finance its imports. Meanwhile, the Chinese are taking over the economy. The new imperialists are decidedly yellow rather than white.
Every leader is limited by his education, innate ability, mindset and unique circumstances. Kaunda was no exception. Despite his foibles, history will absolve him. He now belongs among the immortals.