Zambia’s inaugural president, Kenneth Kaunda, died on June 17, 2021, at the age of 97. From the early 1950s onwards, he led a nonviolent liberation struggle against British rule, eventually forging independence in 1964. In power for the first twenty-seven years of Zambia’s independent statehood, Kaunda leaves a controversial legacy. He abandoned multiparty elections in 1973, ruled as an authoritarian leader for the next eighteen years, and was the architect of disastrous economic policies that compounded the already significant levels of poverty in the country. However, Kaunda should also be remembered as a leader who was instrumental in guiding Zambia through its formative years, doing so in the absence of the wars or mass atrocities that blighted many of its neighbors.
Kaunda’s role in steering his country away from instability and mass violence—especially in the first decade of independence—is particularly noteworthy given the challenges at the time. His own stamp on state building helped to navigate these tensions: he shaped a new national identity that transcended ethnic or tribal affiliations, neither favoring nor scapegoating any group. Kaunda was acutely aware that the new state—with its borders artificially and arbitrarily constructed by its former colonial occupiers—was in peril of fragmenting through power struggles along tribal and ethnic lines. Referring to the dominant language groups, he reiterated the gravity of this new national identity in his 1967 memoir: “with any luck,” he wrote, “this generation will think of itself not in tribal terms as Bemba, Lozi or Tonga, but as Zambians. This is the only guarantee of future stability.” Kaunda thus seemed to be keenly aware that ideology can act as a catalyst as well as one of the most important restraints on mass atrocities; his humanist perspective fostered the latter while other leaders in the region chose the former.
Kaunda backed this principled stance with action during the first decade of independence, when his governing party, the United National Independence Party, began to fragment into factions based on ethnolinguistic differences. Kaunda frequently shuffled ministerial portfolios between factions and often changed personnel in all departments of the public sector—all in an effort to prevent the possibility of ethnolinguistic differences and tensions becoming formally entrenched within the new state. Throughout the 1960s, this constant reshuffling was effective in maintaining a power balance between the country’s different groups; but by the end of the decade, escalating tensions between these factions led to some forming breakaway parties on the basis of ethnolinguistic differences. This prompted Kaunda to centralize power and ban opposition political parties, forging a regime that was increasingly intolerant of opposition voices. Zambia, however, avoided the large-scale violence that some of its neighbors experienced. Although populations in dictatorial regimes are more at risk for mass atrocities than populations in democracies, Kaunda’s decision to centralize power and prohibit opposition parties was motivated—at least in part—by a desire to avoid the formal entrenchment of Zambia’s ethnolinguistic tensions.
In making this decision, however, Kaunda provoked a whole new set of challenges as an authoritarian leader. It wasn’t until 1991 that he lifted the ban on opposition parties, ushering in a transition toward a new phase of democratization. This was done under duress in the context of long-term economic decline, IMF-imposed economic reforms, and increasing dissatisfaction with his regime. Yet even this transition was largely restrained. The opposition movement itself (the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, or MMD) was a broad coalition that embodied Kaunda’s own vision of a Zambia that transcended ethnic and tribal difference. When the MMD registered as a political party and won the 1991 election, Kaunda conceded defeat and transferred power without contestation. While so many other authoritarian leaders opted for a violent response to the contestation of their power, Kaunda chose not to cling to power at all costs.
Even during Zambia’s phase of one-party rule from 1973 to 1991, Kaunda’s legacy of state building stands in contrast to the violent exclusionary tendencies of many regimes in the region. Although he centralized power, this was in part a response to a belief—shared by many leaders across the African continent in the 1960s and 1970s—that multiparty elections were divisive. So while research has shown repeatedly that established democracies tend to be safer for their inhabitants than democratizing or dictatorial countries, Kaunda actually seems to have used his dictatorial rule to steer the country away from the preconditions of mass violence.
Kaunda was able to shape the nation’s identity because dictatorial leaders, through their sway over the dominant narrative of their societies, can be particularly influential and shape how a population may think or act. The way in which Kaunda chose to do so was, however, extraordinary. Oftentimes, dictatorial regimes will use a destructive and exclusionary ideology, as it is through the definition of the “other” that the in-group can be defined and united. Creating such a cohesive in-group can have positive effects for leaders who tend to be more respected, but it can also enhance schisms and cause polarization or, even dehumanization, which can be conducive to massive violence. Populations are particularly likely to turn to leaders with such destructive ideologies when their life conditions are difficult; as people look for ways to understand their reality and search for someone to blame. Kaunda’s feat of uniting the nation, without exploiting ethno-linguistic tensions, is, therefore, even more noteworthy given the real and many risks for identity-based divisions to become entrenched in the first three decades of independence. Though far from perfect, Kaunda’s repeated call of “One Zambia, One Nation” resonated strongly, and established a precedent of stability and inclusion when so many other post-colonial African states went down more violent and exclusionary paths.