Kaunda: The last man standing

Thursday June 17 2021
Kaunda pic
By Charles Onyango-Obbo

Zambia’s former president and founding father Kenneth Kaunda, 97, fell ill on Monday, and was taken to a military hospital in the capital Lusaka.

Kaunda led Zambia from 1964 at its independence, until 1991 when he lost power in the country’s first multiparty election since the one that brought him to office. A gentle man, like many leaders of his generation, Kaunda became a one-party dictator. However, he was never of the menacing variety that fed their rivals to crocodiles in the pond behind State House, or personally clubbed them as the demented “Emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa of the Central African Republic did.

Kaunda also organised an election that he lost. It wasn’t, and still isn’t the custom, in the majority of African elections for the Big Man not to count the votes in his favour. And this was a time when independent election commissions were alien on this fair continent, so polls were organised by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, or the President’s Office itself.

Kaunda aged well, perhaps thanks partly to his being a vegan (an extreme one who eats raw food), having many creative hobbies, and prayer. He is the last man standing in the African independence leaders club.

As he battles, it is perhaps a suitable time to reflect on how different Kaunda and his peers were to the present crop of leaders.

Kaunda was the kind of president you won’t find in an African – or any world – State House today. He played golf, like a few of them do. However, he also played the piano, guitar, and accordion. A hopeless romantic, he serenaded his wife Betty Kaunda with song and piano.


The African leaders of recent years, even when well-born, don’t have that repertoire.

While today presidents organise national prayer breakfasts, in Kaunda’s time they were more worldly. They would organise dance balls. And few did it better than his friend, also a one-party ruler, Uganda’s Milton Obote. It was black tie, nothing less, and they waltzed to Jimmy Reeves, squeezed to Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, and swayed to Louis Armstrong.

Kaunda, Obote, and Tanzania’s Mwalimu Julius Nyerere were close buddies, and formed what was known as the Mulungushi Club. Mulungushi is a river in central Zambia which became a political symbol of independence.

The Facebook page of its present iteration says, “The Mulungushi Club that met in Zambia was the first formation of like-minded states on southern African liberation, a think tank made up of Presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia and Milton Obote of Uganda.”

If you read the history, it was a celebrated club. Today those kinds of big cause alliances among African leaders just doesn’t happen. The closest was after President Uhuru Kenyatta came to office, and with Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, they formed what the media (The East African in particular) dubbed the “Coalition of the Willing (CoW)”. The leaders actually hated the name. However, CoW was largely an infrastructure club.

Kaunda is also a writer. So was Obote. In 1968 he published a small book titled Myths and Realities: Letter to a London Friend. It was a response to the editor of The Observer newspaper in London, then one of the most influential foreign newspapers on Africa, on its coverage of Uganda.

That’s how they did thing those days. They wrote small books to push against Western media’s jaundiced reportage of Africa. And, of course, they still resorted to the time-tested tools of censorship and deportation of foreign correspondents.

Nyerere, though surpassed the two in charm, and literary enterprise. He wrote poetry, and translated

William Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice into Swahili – the first such effort.

It was a contradiction. These men who played piano, held dance balls, wrote books to debate Western media, and translated Shakespeare, were socialists and anti-imperialists of varying hues. Soon they gave us the Kaunda and Nyerere suits, though – especially Obote – never burnt their black tie. And, they weren’t liberal democrats, even of the African homegrown version. They banned the opposition.

It was a contradiction and complexity that defined their age. They were not the one dimensional red-eyed strongmen that the era of military rule and a few of the latter-day liberation movement period produced.

Nyerere’s sainthood was conferred upon him even before he left power. Kaunda has lived to see a remarkable rehabilitation. One time I went to an interview on Ugandan-American Shaka Ssali’s Straight Talk Africa programme on VOA TV in Washington D.C. Kaunda had been there a few days earlier. The building was still abuzz with his visit.

I asked Ssali about it. He said, “Man, you should have seen it. When the old man walked in, we all bowed”.

Of the Mulungushi Club trio, Obote has been the least elevated in the period after. Maybe, his day too will come when the sufferings of the day lead to a sunnier re-evaluation of his tenure.