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Published:Nov 16, 2008

In 1991, after 27 years in power, Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda decided to do the unthinkable. He called for multiparty elections.

At a time when many on the continent were used to leaders being removed through coups, revolutions and assassinations, the move shocked many.

The nation had been agitating for some time for the country to drop the one-party democracy model. Reeling from an economic crisis they blamed on the ruling United National Independence Party, the people wanted a chance to choose their leaders like people in other democracies.

Against the advice of his ministers and counsellors, Kaunda went ahead — with three years of his term still left.

When he was advised not to stand because he may suffer humiliation, he insisted he had unfinished business and was confident the people would allow him to complete it.

The opposite happened.

On the day the votes were counted, Kaunda quickly sensed that the trend was going against him. He decided not to wait for the final tally and phoned his rival, Frederick Chiluba, to congratulate him. He invited Chiluba over to State House and introduced him to the staff.

This is your president, he told them.

As the results were streaming in, the military chiefs rushed to State House, seeking an audience with Kaunda. They wanted to know what it was they should do about this state of affairs. Clearly, Chiluba could not be allowed to take power, they argued.

Kaunda proceeded to give them a lecture in democracy. He told them that he had sought the opinion of the Zambian people about who should run their country, and the people had clearly indicated that they would rather be ruled by Chiluba than him.

Who are we to think we are wiser than the people, he asked them.

The soldiers left State House dejected and unconvinced. His ministers and aides tried to prevail on him to declare a state of emergency and annul the election. He stood firm. “This is not the outcome I wanted but it is the outcome I must respect,” Kaunda said.

Later that night he conceded defeat in a television and radio address.

And he made sure the military were in attendance so that they, too, would be bound by his concession.

It is said that upon hearing the news of Chiluba’s concession, an aide of Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko ran into a cabinet meeting with a note informing the dictator of developments next door.

A shocked Mobutu nearly jumped out of his chair and exclaimed: “I thought KK was smart. How can he lose an election that he himself was running?”

Democracy had arrived in Zambia. But it turned out that, in exercising their democratic rights, the Zambians had made a big mistake.

Upon taking power, Chiluba went on a gluttonous rampage through the fiscus. He ferreted money to foreign accounts and pampered himself and his extended family at the state’s expense.

Chiluba even sought to run for a third term. He used youthful goons to force his party to help him change the constitution to enable him to run. He failed and Zambian democracy triumphed.

His successor, Levy Mwanawasa, turned out to be a better bet than Chiluba. Although he was no inspirational visionary, he consolidated democracy. By the time he died a few months ago, he had become one of the few heads of state on the continent prepared to break the leadership brotherhood’s code of silence on human rights abuses.

Last month, Zambia’s voters went to the polls to elect a new leader again. During the election campaign, the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy’s candidate, Rupiah Banda, and his opposition rival, Michael Sata, traversed the country, urging Zambians to back them.

Not a single rally was disrupted. Not a single leader was beaten up. Not a single chair was thrown.After the election there were cries of foul play from Sata and his supporters, who are challenging the results in court.

But that was about it.

The significance of this story is that there is a lot to be learnt from our brethren on the continent. Very often you hear the nonsense that democracy does not, and cannot, work in Africa. These views come from both condescending racists as well as apologists for African dictatorship.

You hear it from many in our ruling party — it is used to justify a one-party-dominant democracy and why we cannot afford to have strong opposition.

We need to develop our own brand of African democracy, some scholars and politicians say, which is a rather racist notion that the people of this continent dare not be trusted with making choices.

This piece is not about praising Kaunda and painting him as an angel and model of modern statesmanship. He was, after all, in power for 27 years, during which he wrecked that country’s economy.

It is also not to paint Zambia as the ultimate model of a working democracy. Zambia is by no means perfect.

Kaunda and the Zambian experience should show us roads we should not walk and mistakes we need not make.

But we can emulate their relatively successful efforts at building a stable democracy.

Our leaders should also take note of the fact that even an iconic leader like Kaunda could accept that the wisdom of the people could be superior to his.

Source: The Times – SA