Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding president, dies aged 97

·3 min read
<span>Photograph: Themba Hadebe/AP</span>
Photograph: Themba Hadebe/AP

Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding president and one of Africa’s last surviving liberation leaders, has died at a military hospital in Lusaka, where he was being treated for pneumonia. He was 97.

Kaunda ruled the southern African nation from 1964, when it won independence from Britain, until 1991, and is respected across the continent as one of the generation who fought to free their nations from colonial rule.

He was admitted to Maina Soko hospital on Monday with pneumonia.

“I am sad to inform [members] we have lost Mzee. Let’s pray for him,” his son Kambarage said on the late president’s Facebook page on Wednesday.

The former vice-president of Nigeria Atiku Abubakar said Kaunda was the last of a generation who had epitomised the liberation struggle in Africa.

“His passing away is the end of an era. We remain eternally grateful for his services to Zambia and the continent,” he said on Twitter.

“A great tree has fallen. Africa hurts,” said Prof Thuli Madonsela, the former public protector in South Africa.

The youngest of eight children of a Church of Scotland minister, Kaunda was a teacher by training like his parents but was soon drawn to politics.

He founded and led the principal nationalist party, the United National Independence party, which campaigned against British colonial rule. Influenced by Gandhi’s strategy of nonviolence, Kaunda spent nine months in prison and later evolved his own humanist, socialist and pan-African philosophy.

As president of Zambia, Kaunda supported the fight of other countries against repressive, racist regimes in South Africa, Namibia, Angola, Mozambique and Rhodesia.

However, as support for his rule ebbed, Kaunda introduced a one-party state and was the sole candidate at three elections through the 1970s and 1980s.

After he lost multiparty elections in 1991 following massive protests against his rule, Kaunda accepted the defeat.

Kenneth Kaunda greets the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh upon thier arrival in Lusaka in 1979
Kenneth Kaunda greets the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh upon their arrival in Lusaka during a tour of Africa in 1979. Photograph: AP

This set an important precedent for Zambia and the continent, said Nic Cheeseman, a professor of African politics at the University of Birmingham.

“He had a lot more respect and legitimacy than many others of his generation. He got the nation-building right and never played divide and rule with communities, and that was very important for building stability.

“But there will also be people who were imprisoned or beaten under the one-party state for whom Kaunda will be far from a positive figure,” Cheeseman said.

After an abortive attempt to return to political office, Kaunda became deeply involved in the fight against HIV in Zambia and across Africa. The disease claimed one of his sons.

Many blame the Maoist-inspired statist economic policies Kaunda introduced for Zambia’s lack of development under his rule. The country now suffers a massive burden of debt and other deep economic problems.

The leader of Zambia, President Edgar Lungu, faces an election in August amid accusations of authoritarianism.

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