By Rauf Aregbesola
Curtain fell on the extraordinary and illustrious life of Kenneth David Kaunda, Zambia’s founding father and pan-Africanist, after he died from pneumonia on June 17. He will be buried July 7, after living for 97 years.
Kaunda was the last of the titans, the African nationalists that fought for independence from colonial rule, which included the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Ahmadu Bello, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, Nelson Mandela and others.
He was a remarkable man in dignity, humility, simplicity, intellect and character – a leader per excellence.
Given the role he played as a foremost nationalist, pan-Africanist and anti-colonial and anti-apartheid fighter South of Sahara, it will be difficult for me not to pen this tribute on the transition of this inimitable African leader.
Kaunda was born to teacher parents in 1924 and he too started life as a teacher but joined politics in 1949 by becoming a member of Northern Rhodesia Africa National Congress. In 1953, he moved to Lusaka to assume office as the Secretary General of the Africa National Congress.
The entire Southern Africa was in colonial fervour. Colonialism there was not just economic exploitation and political subjugation; large swaths of Europeans were moving in with a clear agenda of resettlement, land grab and the remaking of the region in European image for whites.
It was in these circumstances that Kaunda emerged as a political leader for his people. It is interesting that he never took up arms, but used nonviolent means of passive resistance to advance his cause. For this he was imprisoned by the colonial government. He came out of detention to be elected the first president of independent Zambia in 1964.
His priority in office was education, followed by agriculture. He set a target of total literacy for Zambia and it is not surprising that Zambia has one of the highest literacy rates in Africa.
Finding himself within colonial and apartheid encirclement, he was in the forefront of the anti-apartheid struggle in Southern Africa. He committed Zambian resources and personnel to the struggle and allowed patriots from Zimbabwe, South Africa, Angola and Namibia to use his country as base in their struggles.
He participated actively in the Organisation of Africa Unity (OAU) which he headed twice. He was a pan-Africanist who worked with others for African unity and integration. They transcended their local space as the entire continent was not even enough a platform for them. He was also in the Non-Allied Movement, the association of states that do not align with either side of the Cold War. He was thus a national, regional, continental and global player – straddling the entire gamut.
One blight of his reign was the banning of multiparty political system and institution of political monolithism in Zambia. His argument was that a one-party system keeps ethnic, religious and other divisive tendencies in politics at bay.
But the global Third Wave of democratisation was in full swing, beginning from the late 1980s. The Cold War had ended with American unipolar hegemony being constructed without as much as whimper from any quarter. The United States and her especially European allies were then promoting transition to multiparty democracy where there were hitherto military autocracies and one-party dictatorships all over the world.
Kaunda was caught in the ferments of this wave as popular movement in Zambia, led by his nemesis and eventual successor, Frederick Chiluba, a trade unionist, rose to demand for multiparty democracy. Kaunda was forced to unban multiparty political participation and called for election ahead of schedule in 1991. He only managed to garner 25 per cent of the votes as Chiluba swept him off power by carting off 75 per cent of the ballots, thus ushering a new era of political leadership in Zambia, after 27 years of Kaunda presidency.
I had a fortuitous meeting with Kaunda in 2011 when I was the governor in Osun. We had been attracted to the Zambian beef industry’s success story and had visited with the intention of duplicating it in our state. So, in the company of my friends, the Director General of the Bureau of Social Services, Olufemi Ifaturoti, Dr Charles Akinola, the Director General of the State’s Office of Economic Development and Partnership and Mr Wale Adedoyin, the State’s Commissioner for Agriculture and Food Security, we departed for Lusaka on December 11, 2011.
It was a pleasant surprise when our host and the then Nigerian High Commissioner in Zambia, Ambassador Folake Markus Bello included a visit to the old man in our itinerary. I was quite impressed that Kaunda had retired to a modest bungalow and from the serenity of this simple building in the heart of Lusaka, he received us warmly.
We discovered also that he had been engaged pro bono in advocacy works on HIV-AIDS, healthy living and child development. We decided immediately to publish one of the handbooks he wrote for students, copies of which were distributed to pupils in Osun schools.
His immediate post-presidency life was not particularly rosy. He found himself in opposition and had to frequently clash with President Chiluba as the key opposition figure. This got to a head when Chiluba, now power drunk, instigated the campaign to deport him to Malawi, where his parents were born. He got a court to actually order his deportation but this was overturned by the Supreme Court.
I have Kaunda and others to thank for the pan-Africanist ideology and legacy that my generation inherited from them. This makes it difficult for us to accept further partitioning of the countries created by Europeans in their Berlin Conference of 1884. Rather, we look forward to unification of the continent and the completion of the unfinished work of Markus Garvey, Awolowo, Nkrumah, Kaunda and other.
Adieu Kaunda! You came, you saw and you conquered. Your legacy will live on.
Ogbeni Aregbesola is Nigeria’s Minister of Interior.