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Kenneth Kaunda, founding president of Zambia, dies at 97 years old

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Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president and one of the last surviving leaders of 20th-century struggles in Africa for liberation from colonial rule, has died at the age of 97.

The government of President Edgar Long said on Thursday that Kaunda, “our dear founding father, icon and global statesman,” had died in Lusaka, the capital of the South African nation that led from independence in 1964 until the restoration. of the multiparty elections ended its one-party rule in 1991.

Authorities have declared 21 days of national mourning for a man who ruled with an iron fist for decades, but then became an example for the region’s strongmen when he allowed the election, accepting the verdict of his people and peacefully left power.

Kaunda was born in 1924, the same year as his future autocratic fellow leader-leader, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. The men grew up in different halves of the British Rhodesian territories then.

Both had religious backgrounds and faced the indignity of the white minority government with civil disobedience and commitment to African liberation policy.

Mugabe will end up waiting much longer for power. In 1960, Kaunda led a new force, the National Independence Party, and was an internationally known figure. He toured the United States during his fight for civil rights, meeting black rights activists Malcolm X and Martin Luther King.

Kenneth Kaunda, right, meets American civil rights activist Malcolm X, center, in the 1960s © Three Lions / Hulton / Getty Archive

At independence, Kaunda led a nation with enviable mineral wealth and a commitment to unity under his phrase “One Zambia, One Nation”. Today it remains the second largest exporter of copper in Africa and one of the most peaceful countries in the region.

He became a liberation legend for many Africans alongside Samora Machel of Mozambique and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. With Zambia located next to Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and at the forefront of the fight against apartheid South Africa, Kaunda has welcomed regional exiles including leaders of South Africa’s African National Congress.

In power, Kaunda preached his own brand of African socialism, but the takeover of the government in 1969 by the Zambian copper mines was one of the most obsolete nationalities in history. Copper prices fell during the oil crisis of the 1970s, leaving the country with ever-higher debts and growing economic turmoil.

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Zambia avoided a descent into civil war or war but a paranoid Kaunda hardened politically and declared one-party rule in 1972. It would take decades for Kaunda to manipulate both his party and subsequent votes.

But his rule collapsed as ordinary Zambians rejected him more and more and what had been a promising African economy changed. The bread revolutions and mass protests in the 1990s made a turning point.

Kaunda allowed other candidates to compete against him in the election the following year, only to be truncated at the ballot box. He accepted that Frederick Chiluba’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy had ended his 27-year reign. Despite subsequent abortive attempts to prove him a traitor and to expel his citizenship, Kaunda abandoned politics and became a former regional state official.

The departure of Kaunda was at the time an unusual act in South African politics, especially when Mugabe’s Zanu-PF government across the border tightened its grip on Zimbabwe.

But it was an important precedent for moving the region beyond the aging liberation movements that still control much of southern Africa, including Zanu-PF and Frelimo of Mozambique.

Despite concerns about authoritarian drift under Long, Zambians will hold another presidential vote this year. Kaunda’s former party, long out of power, will barely appear in office.


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