Kenneth Kaunda, founding president of Zambia, has died at the age of 97

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

The government of President Edgar Lungu said on Thursday that Kaunda, “our beloved founding father, icon and world statesman”, had died in Lusaka, capital of the southern African nation he has ruled since. independence in 1964 until the re-establishment of multiparty elections ended his one-party rule in 1991.

Authorities have decreed 21 days of national mourning for a man who ruled with an iron fist for decades, but then became an example for the strongmen in power in the region when he authorized the elections, accepted the verdict of his people and peacefully left power.

Kaunda was born in 1924, the same year as his future liberation leader colleague turned autocrat, the Zimbabwean Robert Mugabe. Men grew up in different halves of the British Rhodesian Territories at the time.

Both had religious origins and faced the indignities of white minority domination through civil disobedience and involvement in African liberation policy.

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

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

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

He has become a liberation legend for many Africans alongside Mozambique’s Samora Machel and Tanzanian Julius Nyerere. With Zambia lying next to Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, Kaunda hosted regional exiles, including leaders of the African National Congress from South Africa.

In power, Kaunda preached his own brand of African socialism, but his government’s 1969 takeover of Zambia’s copper mines was one of the most untimely nationalizations in history. Copper prices collapsed during the oil crisis of the 1970s, leaving the country with rising debts and mounting economic turmoil.

Zambia avoided slipping into civil war or war, but a paranoid Kaunda hardened politically and declared one-party rule in 1972. It went on for decades, with Kaunda manipulating both his party and the votes. successive.

But his reign gradually fell apart as ordinary Zambians increasingly rejected him and what had once been a promising African economy faltered. The bread riots and mass protests in 1990 were a turning point.

Kaunda allowed other candidates to run against him in the elections the following year, before being beaten at the polls. He admitted that Frederick Chiluba’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy had ended its 27-year rule. Despite subsequent failed attempts to try him for treason and strip him of his citizenship, Kaunda left politics and became an older regional statesman.

Kaunda’s exit at the time was an unusual act in South African politics, especially as Mugabe’s ruling Zanu-PF 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 Mozambique’s Zanu-PF and Frelimo.

Despite concerns about the drift into authoritarianism under Lungu, the Zambians will embark on another presidential vote this year. Kaunda’s old party, long out of power, will hardly be in the running.

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