Kaunda's Last Service

November 07, 1991

His electoral defeat and speedy departure from power was the second great service Kenneth Kaunda rendered to Africa. The first was leading Zambia peacefully to independence from Britain in 1964. Now Mr. Kaunda has bowed out with good grace befitting a democratic politician, which he had not lately been, and has shown the way to other African leaders.

Of free Africa's founding giants, Mr. Kaunda was the one with the surest grasp of humanitarian issues outside his own country. At great harm to Zambia's economy, he championed majority rule for neighboring Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. He helped the African National Congress of South Africa, despite that white-ruled country's power of retaliation. Though copper-rich, Zambia is also landlocked, vulnerable to strife in Angola and Mozambique, and powerless to deal with the decline in world copper prices.

But like so many lonely rulers, Mr. Kaunda insulated himself from domestic reality, enjoying his private golf course while Zambia went to ruin. He followed the trend of proclaiming a one-party state in 1972, turned to Communist aid for monument-building and spurned the International Monetary Fund's offer to swap loans for austerity. Only last December did he restore political pluralism in response to unrest and set the stage for this election.

Frederick Chiluba, the young trade union leader and business executive who becomes president, was hastily chosen as opposition standard bearer. He benefited from strong trade unions combined with a devastated economy. His victory insures international forgiveness or postponement of much of Zambia's debt, and he is moving smartly to prepare the nationalized copper industry for sale. Mr. Chiluba will need all the goodwill that Zambians and the world can give.

In his willingness to lose, Mr. Kaunda has gone farther than Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, who retired in favor of a hand-picked successor. He follows change in such countries as Benin, the Cape Verde Islands and Sao Tome & Principe. He adds to the pressures mounting on H. Kamuzu Banda of Malawi, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Daniel Arap Moi of Kenya. He is the opposite of Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator who would see Zaire destroyed before relinquishing power.

In the first years of independence, African countries discarded parliamentary systems imposed by colonial powers and found models in Marxist regimes of Europe. But the self-destruction of Eastern Europe has convinced Africans that only pluralist regimes can reflect their own diversity and yearnings for freedom. Africa is rediscovering democracy, this time on its own terms. Mr. Kaunda could have bowed out quietly. Instead, he submitted to popular judgment and accepted humiliating rejection. It was the finest parting gift he could bequeath his people.

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