/ 22 March 2022

Obituary: Rupiah Banda

Zambia's former president Rupiah Banda.
Zambia's former president Rupiah Banda.

On 11 March 2022, Rupiah Banda, Zambia’s fourth republican president died. 

His death came nine months after that of his mentor, one-time boss, and Zambia’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda. The two former presidents leave behind them a legacy that goes beyond Zambia’s borders: that democracy is an inestimable political value, worthy of preserving and that if it entails incumbents conceding electoral defeat to victorious oppositions, then so be it. 

Another lesson, somewhat related to the first, is that an active and rewarding political and public life is possible when one leaves the presidency. In an Africa that is fraught with leaders who are reluctant to relinquish presidential power, this lesson is even more important. 

Zambia has always played a pioneering or trailblazing role in southern Africa and beyond. In the 1960s, it was one of the first southern African countries to gain independence. It used its newly found political sovereignty to embark on an anticolonial crusade that saw the country pitted against the isolated but powerful neighbourhood nemeses in apartheid South Africa and Ian Smith’s rebel minority regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). 

In 1991, Zambia again blazed a trail when Kenneth Kaunda, a lynchpin of southern Africa’s anti-colonial struggle, called for a democratic and multiparty election. When he was resoundingly defeated, he did what was almost inconceivable for a man who had played the foremost role in establishing Zambia: he gracefully conceded defeat and personally removed the presidential pennant from his vehicle. 

After he left power, Kaunda became a respected elder statesman and invested his energies in HIV and Aids activism. The outpouring of grief at his passing in June 2021 attested to a life well lived, even though the man being mourned had been out of the presidential office for three decades. 

Rupiah Banda served in Kaunda’s government as ambassador to Egypt, the US and the UN and as a minister of foreign affairs. While young people and non-Zambians will mostly remember him by his three years as president, the most perceptive will note that his huge contributions to Zambia and Africa actually happened during the years before and after his presidency. During his years (1974-1975) at the UN, he headed the Council on Namibia and was an eloquent and impactful campaigner for the Namibian cause for independence. 

After the end of the Kaunda presidency that paved the way for a return to multiparty politics, Rupiah Banda led a largely inactive political life, which ended with the somewhat surprising appointment to the vice-presidency by Levy Mwanawasa in 2006. In August 2008, Banda was catapulted to the presidency when Mwanawasa died just shy of two years into his second term. For younger-generation Zambians, this was the time they became acquainted with the veteran diplomat. 

Banda was not as popular as his predecessor, and his 2% victory over Michael Sata and his Patriotic Front (PF) in the 2008 presidential by-election was an ominous precursor of the 2011 election, which he lost to Sata, becoming the second incumbent president (after Kaunda in 1991) to be voted out of power. 

Again, like Kaunda did two decades earlier, Banda conceded defeat and offered an unforgettable and tearful congratulations to a victorious Sata. His presidency was largely overshadowed by Mwanawasa’s achievements and Banda is understandably judged as having been a caretaker president, voted into power merely to see out his predecessor’s second term. For example, he has not received due recognition for maintaining Zambia’s economic growth of more than 7% at a time when the world was reeling against the backdrop of a global recession. 

Whereas many Zambians would have been tempted to write Banda’s political obituary in 2011, he would go on to live an active and admired postpresidential life. In 2012, he was invited to be the eighth president-in-residence at Boston University’s African Presidential Center (APC). 

He used this platform to make a case for Africa’s democracy. In his inaugural lecture at Boston he argued that “for democracy to flourish there must be a continuing stream of individuals of integrity and ideas with promise. There must be room for a new generation of leaders to rise to solve the next generation of problems. If democracy is going to be secure in countries like Zambia, if development is going to take root, old leaders can’t cling to power or attempt to consolidate it at all costs.” He added that “there comes a time when leaders must step aside and become statesmen – elder or not.” 

Before he could consolidate his status as an elder statesman, however, Banda was subjected to an unseemly spectacle by the PF government. He was stripped of his presidential immunity against prosecution and hauled before courts on charges of corruption. He was ultimately acquitted, and was a clear winner in the battle for moral integrity, having subjected himself to government-sponsored vindictiveness and scorn. 

For his moral integrity and his willingness to relinquish power in a lost democratic election, Banda was often enlisted by organisations such as the Jimmy Carter Foundation and the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa to be part of election observer missions in several African countries. 

In his dotage, Rupiah Banda continued to indulge his love for the youth and soccer (one of his last meetings was supposed to be with former star striker Frédéric Kanouté), all while battling cancer. Amid all this, Banda was to perform what might measure up to be one of his biggest contributions to Zambia’s democracy, and it came in August 2021. 

Edgar Lungu, who was president from 2015, had just lost the August 2021 election to his main rival — Hakainde Hichilema and his United Party for National Development (UPND). Though Hakainde’s victory was resounding (59% of the total vote to Lungu’s 38%), there were troubling signs that Lungu would reject the result. Through economic and political blunders and the intimidation wrought by PF hooligans euphemistically called cadres, the PF had forfeited the support of many Zambians, especially the youth. 

Thus, rejecting the vote that drove such an unpopular party and president from power was sure to excite the passions of a restive and impatient citizenry. Rupiah Banda had to reach into his innate diplomatic resources to invite Hichilema and Lungu to his residence. The main discussions of the watershed meeting may never be known, but the pictures and videos that were taken after the meeting, of Hichilema, Lungu and Banda in upbeat mood and exchanging Covid-imposed elbow greetings, were not only a picture of Zambia’s continued status as an African beacon of democracy, but an enduring testament to Banda’s talent for diplomacy and persuasion. 

As Zambia mourns Banda’s death, the country is in a desperate search for leaders who will step in his shoes to offer counsel to active politicians. With near-exaggeration, some Zambians are searching for a new “father of the nation” a designation that Banda never made about himself; he preferred the more modest “elder statesman” title. Edgar Lungu, as Zambia’s only remaining former president, has by default incurred the role of a statesman. President Hichilema announced that, upon hearing of Banda’s death, he called former president Lungu and undertook to inform him of all proceedings leading up to the burial. 

All this would scarcely have happened had Banda not put it in motion with the celebrated meeting of August 2021. Indeed, it is because of the ilk of Banda and Kaunda that Zambia continues to flaunt its deserved status as a star of democracy in Africa. 

Banda’s contributions serve as an example to incumbents reluctant to leave power that there can be a life after the presidency and that no one should ordain themselves as the sole deserving president. This example was a gift not only to Zambia but to the rest of Africa,, and especially to countries that are saddled with long-serving presidents who refuse to give up power.