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Kenneth Kaunda, Zambian president and elder statesman of Africa – obituary

Teaching at a mission school near Salisbury, capital of Southern Rhodesia, and at a secondary school in Mufulira in the Copperbelt of Northern Rhodesia, Kaunda was saddened rather than angered by the way the whites treated the blacks. He abandoned his career and decided to become a politician to end racial discrimination and segregation.

He helped to found the Northern Rhodesian African National Congress and became district secretary of a local branch in Chinsali District. In three years he rose to the office of the party’s secretary-general, in 1953, which automatically made him the chief lieutenant of Harry Nkumbula, president of the (Zambian) African National Congress, as the party’s name was shortened to.

As editor of its news sheet, Kaunda attacked the policies of the Central African Federation, the union of Northern and Southern Rhodesia together with Nyasaland, which was established in 1953, and condemned the colour bar. He was arrested and sentenced to two months in jail for possessing banned literature. In prison, he decided to follow the ascetic life, giving up smoking and drinking.

Kaunda toured Britain and India in 1957 and fell under the influence of Mahatma Gandhi’s tenets of non-violence, which formed the basic principle of a new political organisation he founded on his return to Northern Rhodesia.

In October 1958, Kaunda broke away from Nkumbula, who had refused to oppose a new British constitution, which ignored many demands made by the Congress party. Kaunda formed a new party, the Zambian African National Congress, under his own presidency, to take a stronger, if non-violent, line with the colonial authorities. He called on his 75,000-strong membership to boycott elections in 1959 because the federation of the Rhodesias and Nyasaland had been created by white settlers to exploit the Africans.

Before the elections took place Kaunda was arrested for organising “an unlawful assembly” and sent into exile in a remote part of Northern Rhodesia, and later to prison in Salisbury. His party was banned.

During his nine months of incarceration – “the most terrible months of my life” – he suffered malaria, dysentery and other illnesses. He became more convinced that his people could find freedom only through a policy of non-violence, arguing: “It is no good trying to lead my people to the land of their dreams if I get them killed on the way.”

Within a few weeks of his release from prison in January 1960, Kaunda became head of the newly formed United National Independence Party (UNIP) and resumed his campaign against the federation government of Sir Roy Welensky. He dismissed a proposed constitution offering 22 legislative seats to 70,000 whites and eight to three million blacks as “unchristian, unethical, impolite and unworkable”.

Under a revised constitution proposed by Britain, elections were held in October 1962. UNIP failed to win a majority so Kaunda linked up with Nkumbula’s ANC to form a coalition, the first African government for the protectorate.

Kaunda was appointed minister of local government and social welfare. Immediately, he announced that he would seek a new constitution enabling Northern Rhodesia to break away from the federation.

Further London talks led to the federation’s dissolution on December 31 1963, and self-rule for the territory after UNIP won a landslide victory the following month, capturing 51 of the 75 seats in the first “one man-one vote” election in Northern Rhodesia.

At 39, Kaunda became the youngest prime minister in the Commonwealth. He was soon on his way to London to secure a promise of independence before the end of the year. Returning home, he faced a full-scale uprising by the Lumpa religious sect led by the fanatical prophetess, Alice Lenshina. During a three-week reign of terror, 500 men, women and children were killed before the government quelled the rebellion.

On August 25 1964 Kaunda was elected president-designate without opposition, and on October 24 Northern Rhodesia changed its name to the Republic of Zambia, the ninth British colony on the continent to win independence and Africa’s 36th to achieve that status.

Kaunda chose to remain within the Commonwealth, launched reforms in agriculture and education and recognised the need to keep white officials and technicians, assuring them that there would be no black intimidation.

Always the pragmatist, Kaunda was well aware that Zambia was economically dependent on the neighbouring white-ruled countries: Rhodesia and South Africa supplied Zambia with most of its imports, while Rhodesia provided rail routes to South Africa’s ports and channelled coal and electricity to the newly independent nation.

But soon the political scene changed dramatically. On November 11 1965, Ian Smith, prime minister of Rhodesia, broke away from Britain in a unilateral declaration of independence. Kaunda declared a state of emergency for Zambia and called on Britain to send troops to defend the huge Kariba hydroelectric dam, which his government owned jointly with the rebellious Salisbury regime.

Britain responded with a squadron of jet fighters for Zambia, promising to send troops should the dam be attacked by Rhodesia. With UN support it also imposed economic sanctions and oil embargoes. Kaunda considered these measures to be inadequate and said that if Britain failed to take stronger measures, he would propose that she should be expelled from the Commonwealth.

During the years of the UDI conflict Kaunda supported Joshua Nkomo’s rebel movement, which did not endear him to Robert Mugabe’s guerrillas.

Kaunda, who had signed a decree in 1972 making Zambia a one-party state, quickly aspired to the leadership of the so-called “front line states” – the other anti-South Africa countries of Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola, and South-West Africa.

For years the Zambian president brandished the anti-apartheid banner. Turning on Mrs Thatcher at the 1987 Vancouver conference of Commonwealth leaders, he cried: “How is it possible that the people who fought Nazi Germany and sacrificed so much can conspire with the Nazis of today in South Africa and tell us: ‘Do not impose sanctions because they will bite you?’ ”

For once he ignored the economic reality, knowing that sanctions would probably worsen the deepening financial misery of his own land. For the African nation that was once tipped for immeasurable prosperity from its mineral reserves had taken a nose-dive towards economic ruin.

He had added the chairmanship of the Organisation of African Unity to his activities in the anti-South African campaign and travelled abroad so frequently that Western nations anxious to help became completely disillusioned with him. Whenever he was absent, the Zambian government came to a stop because no other politician was in a sufficiently strong position to take decisions of any importance.

The International Monetary Fund demanded severe austerity measures to reduce Zambia’s debts, including cuts in subsidies and weekly foreign exchange auctions to end the corrupt allocation procedures for import and export permits.

For two years, Kaunda tried to apply the remedies but in May 1987 he ordered the IMF out of Zambia, declaring that they were too harsh. Inflation rocketed to 60 per cent and living standards fell with a thump. Eventually the President yielded and imposed a tough IMF programme.

It was not long before Kaunda’s authoritarian rule was fatally challenged. After three days of anti-government rioting in July 1990, he announced that a referendum on a multiparty system would be held in October. An attempted military coup, which was promptly thwarted, immediately followed the announcement.

Its failure did not halt opposition pressure and in 1991 the President was forced to cancel the referendum in favour of constitutional amendments ending the UNIP’s monopoly. He also called presidential and legislative elections for October of that year.

They swept the trade union leader Frederick Chiluba and his Movement for Multiparty Democracy to power, with Kaunda winning only 24 per cent of the vote and the UNIP taking only 25 of the 159 National Assembly seats. Handing over to the victor the following month, Kaunda became only the second mainland African head of state, having lost elections, to relinquish power peacefully.

His relationship with his successor was rancorous. Chiluba attempted to deport him on the grounds that he was a Malawian and placed him under house arrest for alleged involvement in a coup attempt in 1997. In 1999 the High Court in Ndola declared him stateless, a judgment which he successfully challenged in the Supreme Court the following year.

In 1946 Kaunda married Betty (née Banda), who died in 2012. He is survived by eight children.

Kenneth Kaunda, born April 28 1924, died June 17 2021     

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