Zambia’s first president Kenneth Kaunda, an icon of Africa’s liberation struggle against colonial rule, has died of pneumonia at a military hospital in the capital Lusaka. He was 97.
He was admitted to the Maina Soko Military Hospital earlier this week.
Kaunda ruled Zambia for 27 years after independence from Britain in 1964 as head of the United National Independence Party. After leading the largely peaceful struggle for independence from British rule in his home country, known as Northern Rhodesia under white minority rule, he helped to liberate his neighbours by providing a safe haven and logistical help to liberation movements from Zimbabwe, Namibia, Angola, Mozambique and South Africa.
“Throughout the region’s wars of independence, Kenneth Kaunda, an uncompromising nationalist, pan-Africanist, leader of the Frontline States and an outspoken critic of apartheid, believed that Zambia’s freedom was meaningless if its neighbours were not liberated,” says Reginald Ntomba, the author of a book on Zambia.
Kaunda is also remembered for gracefully stepping down after three decades in the country’s first multi-party elections, says Nic Cheeseman, professor of democracy at the University of Birmingham.
“He was one of the first leaders to peacefully accept defeat after losing power in 1991, setting an important precedent for his country and the continent.”
Feted at once as a liberation hero and an oppressor, the debate over his legacy will outlive him, Cheeseman says.
“The debate about the repression used to sustain his one-party state vs. his contribution to Zambian unity and independence will run and run.”
He recalls meeting Kaunda for the first time at his house, where the former leader was humble and unpretentious.
“He saw me on time, spoke at length and lived – it seemed to me – in a house that didn’t suggest he had taken a lot of his country’s money.”
Kaunda is also celebrated for uniting the ethnically diverse country of more than 70 tribes, and creating common ground in a landscape of deeply polarised politics.
But his story would not be complete without remembering his arrest of political opponents, his bans on opposition gatherings, firing of critics from within the ruling party and for unleashing riot police on protesters, writes one blogger.
“The full story, which includes his dictatorial tendencies and reckless economic policies which drove the country down, must be told,” they say.
In later life he dedicated his time to humanitarian causes such as HIV/Aids, children and homelessness, appearing at events locally and abroad.
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