One of the last remaining leaders of Africa's independence era has been removed from power -- not killed at the hands of mutinous soldiers, flying into exile just ahead of riotous mobs or even dying peacefully in bed from natural causes -- but becoming the first to be voted out of office in democratic elections.
The ruling United National Independence Party (UNIP) of President Kenneth D. Kaunda, who has led Zambia since its independence in 1964, was handily defeated Thursday in multi-party elections that would have been unthinkable a year ago. A fighter for independence and majority rule in other African states, Mr. Kaunda long maintained a one-party government at home.
He was defeated by a fledgling Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) led by popular trade unionist Frederick Chiluba. Mr. Chiluba's MMD has provided the most dramatic evidence that the democracy movement has firmly taken root in Africa after similar results earlier this year in Benin, the Cape Verde Islands and Sao Tome & Principe, the first African nations in which ruling parties were voted out of office.
"Even if we lose," said Mr. Chiluba, 46, before his victory, "we will have won anyway. Our struggle was to bring Zambia to democracy. And we have succeeded."
The elections, which were observed by more than 2,000 election monitors (including a group led by former President Jimmy Carter), were remarkably peaceful and conducted in a atmosphere of almost giddy enthusiasm as Zambian voters went to the polls -- a noteworthy achievement considering Zambia's virtual economic collapse.
Gracious in defeat, Mr.Kaunda even promised to give his successor a tour of the State House grounds, while Mr. Chiluba stated that he would consult the former president for advice in the future.
Mr. Kaunda's defeat is "positive for democracy because shows political maturity in Africa," said Robert Rotberg, president of Lafayette College in Easton, Pa. and noted Africa scholar. "This happens all the time in the Caribbean, and there's no reason why it shouldn't happen in Africa."
In the last year, Mr. Rotberg said, Mr. Kaunda, like other former one-party rulers in Africa, looked at the growing economic decline and building political turmoil in his country and "realized it was better to have some type of transition. He may not have understood how unpopular he was and may still not understand."
Earlier this year, Mr. Kaunda barely survived an attempted military coup shortly after riots caused by food price hikes, which prompted many residents of the capital of Lusaka to dance into the streets in celebration at false reports of his ouster. Shortly afterward, Mr. Kaunda scrapped plans for a referendum on a return to multi-party democracy when MMD political rallies drew the largest crowds in the history of the nation.
Mr. Kaunda grudgingly conceded the obvious, canceled the referendum, changed the constitution to allow 13 other parties and braced for his party for its first competitive elections since the 1960s.
More than simply writing his own political obituary, Mr. Kaunda and his political opposition established the ballot as the process for political change in Zambia. And by doing so, they may have also prevented the bloody descent to political anarchy that has occurred recently in other nations which refused to do so, such as Somalia, Liberia and, most notably, Zaire.
"It must be accepted by all that elections are not an end in themselves," said Mr. Kaunda on the eve of the elections. "They are only a means to an important end. That important end is good government for the people."
The Zambian transition been similar to those which have occurred elsewhere in Africa. National political conferences have convened in Togo, Benin, Niger and the Congo, where long-seated economic and human rights abuses were openly discussed and political power wrested away from military rulers.
In Benin, a new president was voted into office. Multi-party elections are scheduled within the next year for more than a dozen other African countries that were either military or one-party governments, such as Zambia, a year ago.
"People feel they were misgoverned," said Richard L. Sklar, a Zambia scholar and political science professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. "When the Berlin Wall fell [in November 1989] and demonstration for democracy became well-known throughout the world, the Zambians simply joined in with their voices. Most Zambians believed they had been taken for a ride all along."
The pro-Western and charismatic Mr. Kaunda led Zambia to independence from Britain in 1964, and never faced serious challenge for the country's leadership. Offering a one-party state as a way to promote national unity in Zambia, he banned political opposition in 1973. Meanwhile, his government embarked on an ill-fated experiment in socialism called "Humanism."