Featured Notes Owei Lakemfa

The Dove which triumphed over hawks and vultures: The Kaunda story

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By Owei Lakemfa.

THE NEO-COLONIAL TRAJECTORY of almost all African states, the neo-liberal policies they pursue and their anti-people programmes, lead in virtually all cases, to constant conflicts between African political leaders and workers. So it is rare for workers to eulogise their political elite. So, for them at the continental level to collectively eulogise and honour a particular African president is indeed, a rarity.

Perhaps only the legendary Nelson Mandela passed that test. The only African leader that surpassed Mandela on this score is former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda, affectionately called KK or KK of Africa. He is the only person in history who African Labour leaders collectively eulogised, begged for forgiveness and honoured.

This was not just for the unparalleled support, including material, he gave to liberation movements, his commitment to the African people, humility and for being a symbol of African unity, but also for the indignity he suffered in the hands of former labour leaders in his country after he left office.

This story began in 1987 when following conflicts between the central    Zambia Congress of Trade Unions, ZCTU, and the government, the passports of then ZCTU President, Frederick Chiluba; Secretary General, Newstead Zimba and Executive member, Chitalu Sampa were seized and barred from travelling out of the country.


The continental labour centre, the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity, OATUU decided to intervene. Its then Secretary General, Hassan Adebayo Sunmonu, led a delegation which included officials of the International Labour Organisation, ILO, African Office, to Lusaka. President Kaunda granted the delegation audience during which he presented the case of his government against the ZCTU leaders.

The labour delegation tried to disabuse Kaunda’s mind and asked for unrestricted movement for the labour leaders. Kaunda assured that with the intervention, all actions against the ZCTU and its leaders will be discontinued immediately and as a gesture of goodwill, he ordered the passports of the labour leaders released to the delegation.        

Ironically, four years later, Chiluba as candidate of the opposition Movement for Multi-party Democracy, MMD, defeated Kaunda at the 1991 presidential election. The Chiluba government included Newstead Zimba as Home Affairs and Information Minister, and Chitalu Sampa, at various times Home Affairs, Mines and Defence Minister. This government, despite all appeals, embarked on a with-hunt programme against the revered Kaunda. Kaunda as head of an 11-party coalition of opposition parties accused Chiluba of ineptitude and gross corruption.

On Saturday, August 23, 1997, Kaunda attended a rally of the National Opposition Alliance in Kabwe, north of Lusaka. Armed policemen moved in to break the rally and in the process shot at Kaunda’s car. A bullet struck his forehead. Two other opposition leaders, including Mr. Roger Chongwe, were also shot. Kaunda told the BBC on his hospital bed: “There is no doubt in my mind that the assassination attempts on our lives was an instruction from above.”


Indicating that President Chiluba wanted him dead. On October 28, 1997 there was a coup attempt against the Chiluba government led by Captains Steven Lungu and Jack Chiti. The government rounded up 104 suspects, including members of the ruling and opposition parties. Some died under torture, a claim confirmed by the coup tribunal.

Fifty eight days after the coup, the Chiluba government decided to rope Kaunda into the on-going trial. It was Christmas day the security forces invaded Kaunda’s home and threw him into the maximum prison. He was accused of concealing treason, a charge that carried a life sentence. But the charge could not stick and Kaunda was freed.

When two years later, Kaunda decided to contest in the presidential election against Chiluba, high ranking members of the ruling party took him to court claiming he is not a Zambian and should be deported. The claim was based on the fact that Zambia, then known as Northern Rhodesia; Zimbabwe, then called Southern Rhodesia; and Malawi, then called Nyasaland was a single central African federation under British colonialism. Kaunda’s father, David Kaunda, a priest and teacher, was from the Nyasaland of the federation, but was based in Lusaka.

His young son, KK, led Northern Rhodesia against the union, broke it up and secured independence for the new territory which he and his compatriots renamed Zambia, a name they derived from the great Zambezi River. When he became the founding President of Zambia, Kaunda renounced his Malawian origins and took up Zambian citizenship.


But the Chiluba group challenged Kaunda’s citizenship and a pliant High Court on April Fools Day in 1999, ruled that under Zambian constitution, the country’s founding president who presided over its affairs for 27 years, was not a citizen. Under Zambian law, he was liable to be arrested, his passport seized and deported to a country willing to take him as he had become stateless since he had previously renounced his Malawian citizenship. 

This was a joke taken too far and Africa in unison rose against the Chiluba government. Ironically, President Chiluba’s parents had come from the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC, and if Kaunda were to be deported, he himself was liable for deportation!

The OATUU which had intervened on behalf of Chiluba in 1987 was so shocked and ashamed not just by the profligacy of the Chiluba administration which was proved in court, but particularly by his hounding and humiliation of the African icon. Rather than send a mere letter of apology to Kaunda or a delegation to visit him, the OATUU decided to invite him to its International Quadrennial Conference in Khartoum, Sudan to publicly apologise and honour him for his demonstrable pro-people policies and sacrifices to rid the entire continent of colonialism and Apartheid.

When Kaunda accepted the invitation, the OATUU approached the then leader of the host country, President Omar Hassan Bashir to send a presidential jet to pick Kaunda and also return him to Lusaka. Bashir felt honoured and released the jet. Kaunda accepted the apology and honour by African workers.


Kaunda was a dove with dove-like qualities including loyalty, selflessness,    love, devotion, honesty, purity and faith; his signature white handkerchief which he began to wave from his days in British prison, was itself, a symbol of peace.

Despite his peaceful nature and non-violence advocacy, Kaunda was not opposed to picking up the gun if inevitable; which was why he supported the armed struggle of the liberation movements. It is this practical attitude to life that saw him survive the settler-hawks of Northern Rhodesia, the flesh-eating falcons of British colonialism, the circling vultures of Apartheid South Africa and the man-eating cassowary (Casurius) birds in Zambia.

Our father, Kaunda left on Thursday, June 17, 2021 at 97, and was laid to eternal rest on July 7. May we be his worthy inheritors. Ameen.

  • Owei Lakemfa is a journalist, activist, and socio-political critic


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