Will of the people: Zambia’s Kenneth Kaunda and the legacy of peaceful transfer of power in Africa


Arnold Tsunga is the Country Director of the National Democratic Institute, Zimbabwe, and Chairperson of the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network. He writes in his personal capacity.

Zambians have participated in large numbers in the elections. They know the individual and collective vote matters. They know the individual and collective vote has more power than all the bullets, soldiers, police and intelligence in Zambia.

I do not think that as southern Africans, we are conscious of and thankful enough for the legacy and precedent of a peaceful transfer of power after democratic elections that the late Dr Kenneth Kaunda bestowed. 

Kenneth Kaunda, the founding president of Zambia, ruled the country for nearly three decades from 1964, when the country secured independence from Britain. In a surprising turn of events in 1991, Kaunda lost in elections to Frederick Chiluba, creating anxious moments about whether we would see for the first time in southern Africa, a liberation party peacefully transferring power to an opposition party. No one expected a liberation party to lose power by the ballot as has become the political tradition in virtually all southern African countries except Zambia.

In an amazing show of statesmanship Kaunda conceded defeat and transferred power to an opposition political party, peacefully remarking in the process these profound words, “The true lesson of democracy is to accept the verdict of the people … This I will do … I have done my best for Zambia. . . [But] this is the nature of multiparty politics. You win some, you lose some. It’s not the end of the world.”

In a flash Kaunda achieved for Zambia what has not been achieved by any other country in post-liberation southern Africa. Not only did he initiate the first peaceful transfer of power between presidents after elections, but the first and so far the only peaceful transfer of power from a liberation movement to an opposition in southern Africa. 

Contrary to Kaunda’s remarks, which contribute to building a strong culture of electoral multiparty democracy, some strong leaders in the region, like Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe, refused to allow the electorate to decide who should be in power via elections, arguing that the ballot cannot beat the bullet: Mugabe made it quite clear recently that “power cannot be taken by a pen but by a gun”. 

Zambia’s democracy is therefore probably the most developed and unyielding in post-liberation southern Africa. With Kaunda’s legacy, one that accepts that the ballot is stronger than the bullet, Zambians have demonstrated confidence and belief in elections. The African Union Observer mission says that “a total of 7,023,499 voters were registered, which is about 83.5% of projected eligible persons”. 

The Zambian youth has made a big difference in defending, protecting and enhancing their country’s democracy. Zambians have participated in large numbers in the elections. They know the individual and collective vote matters. They know the individual and collective vote has more power than all bullets, soldiers, police and intelligence in Zambia. They know that presidents and cabal of friends can misbehave and privatise power and public policy for a period in between elections but they have the final say at elections. They know that some presidents when drunk with power can try to change the Kenneth Kaunda legacy of peaceful transfer of power through elections, but that after all is said and done it is ultimately the people’s say. 

How wonderful it is that through their founding president, Zambians can demonstrate the African Union’s aspiration and ideal that the authority to govern comes from the will of the people expressed freely through elections. This aspiration and value is a universal one codified in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says “the will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures”. 

This is a value that prevents conflict, that builds and guarantees peace, that builds societies to be strong and prosperous democracies and economies. It protects societies from state capture and destruction of the sovereign will of the people to govern themselves. The people of Zambia know and believe that elections matter. They know they always have the last say. Let us hope that other nations in the region can emulate this and let electoral democracy flourish. 

That will make southern Africa a powerful, prosperous, peaceful and just region. May the soul of Kenneth Kaunda Rest in Power and keep guiding the southern African region to better democratic growth. DM/MC


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