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Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s founding father, Last leader of Africa’s liberation era, dies at 97

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KENNETH Kaunda, Zambia’s founding president and one of the last of the generation of African leaders who fought colonialism, has died at 97.

“KK”, as he was popularly known, ruled Zambia from 1964 to 1991 died at the Maina Soko Medical Centre, a military hospital in Lusaka where he was being treated for pneumonia.

Kaunda ruled Zambia from 1964, when the Southern African nation won its independence from Britain, until 1991, and afterwards became one of the most committed activists against HIV/AIDS in Africa.

Kenneth David Kaunda was born on April 28, 1924, the youngest of eight children of a Church of Scotland minister at Lubwa mission in the remote north of the country.

Known also by his African name of “Buchizya” – the unexpected one – he did menial jobs to earn school fees after his father’s death. He worked as a teacher and a mine welfare officer and entered politics in 1949 as a founding member of the Northern Rhodesian African National Congress. In his early days of anti-colonial agitation, he cycled from village to village preaching majority rule.

In the 1950s, Kaunda was a key figure in what was then Northern Rhodesia’s independence movement from Britain. He became president following independence in 1964.

As head of the left-leaning United National Independence Party (UNIP), Kaunda then led the country through decades of one-party rule. He stepped down after losing multi-party elections in 1991.

The youngest of eight children, Kaunda lost his father when he was eight years old. His mother was a teacher – a rare profession for Zambian women in those days.

He started his political career as the organising secretary of the Northern Rhodesian African National Congress (NRANC) in the Northern Province of Zambia.

But in 1958, he broke from the NRANC to form the Zambian African National Congress (ZANC). The colonial authorities banned it a year later, and Kaunda was imprisoned in Lusaka for nine months. ZANC became the United Party for National Development (UNIP) in 1959.

The following year, Kaunda was released from prison and elected president of the nationalist, left-of-centre UNIP. He then started organising civil disobedience known as the Cha-cha-cha campaign.

Using his rhetorical skills to appeal to the public, Kaunda won independence for his nation without resorting to violence in 1964. As UNIP president, he ruled Zambia for 27 years.

In the 1960’s and 70’s Kaunda provided logistical help to other African liberation movements, including the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) and the breakaway Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU) of Southern Rhodesia and the African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa.

The ANC’s Radio Freedom was allowed to broadcast from Lusaka and it was under Kaunda’s protection that the ANC waged an armed struggle, then a diplomatic one against apartheid. Zambia also helped Zimbabwe gain its independence from white minority rule in 1980. But during his time in power, Zambia became a one-party state – effectively giving him absolute control.

Kaunda banned the political opposition in 1973. He was forced to reverse this decision in 1991 due to popular pressure provoked by shortages of basic foodstuffs as well as increasing international pressure for greater democracy in Africa. He fell from power with the advent of multiparty democracy. In 1991, he lost presidential elections to Fredrick Chiluba from the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) after a fiercely contested campaign.

Kaunda accepted defeat waving his trademark white handkerchief. Kaunda had continued to engage in national politics and in 1996 tried to stand for the presidency. However, the Chiluba government changed the constitution so that anyone whose parents came from outside the country was deemed a foreigner and could therefore not run for office.

n later life Kaunda turned his attention to the fight against HIV after one of his sons, Masuzyo, died from an Aids-related disease. “We fought colonialism. We must now use the same zeal to fight Aids, which threatens to wipe out Africa,” he told Reuters in 2002.

“I am sad to inform we have lost Mzee,” Kaunda’s son, Kambarage, wrote on his late father’s Facebook page, using a term of respect. “Let’s pray for him.”

Zambian President Edgar Lungu said the country was mourning “a true African icon”. “I learnt of your passing this afternoon with great sadness,” he wrote on Facebook. “On behalf of the entire nation and on my own behalf I pray that the entire Kaunda family is comforted as we mourn our first president and true African icon.”

The government declared three weeks of national mourning with all forms of entertainment suspended.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation said Kaunda’s contribution to the struggle against colonialism and apartheid would not be forgotten. Another tribute came from Kalusha Bwalya, former captain of the Zambian national football team, who said Kaunda had made “an immense impact”.

Former Nigerian President, Chief Olusegun Obasanjo has disclosed that the death of Kenneth Kaunda marks the end to the list of African freedom fighters on earth.

The former President said this in a statement, describing as sad, the news of a man he called “a founding father of Zambia.”

Obasanjo described the late Zambian President as “one of the pioneers who led the struggles for the decolonisation of the African continent.”

In his condolence, Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, who confirmed the demise via a statement on his verified Facebook page, said he was shocked and saddened.

“Not only was he of very great significance to Africa’s struggle for liberation he was also quite significant to me. I met him as a much younger politician and I am glad to have maintained a close relationship with the great sage.”

“Kaunda was a specimen of the highest level of patriotism. He was also a strong promoter of Pan-Africanism, an idea that has reached maturity with the African Continental Free Trade Area, which itself was a product of the vision of men and women like Mr. Kaunda.

“He will be greatly missed and fondly remembered across the entire continent.

“On behalf of the Goodluck Jonathan Foundation and my family, I condole with the government and people of the Republic of Zambia on the passing of their foremost founding father.

I pray for fortitude to his immediate family”, he stated.

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