Former President Banda’s contribution to democracy in Zambia and beyond

Former Zambian President Rupiah Banda led the country for 3 years from 2008 to 2011. He became the fourth president after the country’s independence from British rule in 1964.

IMF Photograph/Stephen Jaffe
IMF Photograph/Stephen Jaffe

Former Zambian President Rupiah Banda died on Friday March 11, 2022, aged 85 after suffering from colon cancer. The Zambian government declared seven days of national mourning in honour of his distinguished public service to the nation. The late former Zambian President led the country for 3 years from 2008 to 2011. He became the fourth president after the country’s independence from British rule in 1964.

After the death of Zambia’s first President Kenneth Kaunda in June last year, Banda stepped into the shoes of Kaunda as the country’s elder statesman @mubangalumpa

Banda was unexpectedly appointed as the country’s Vice-president in 2006 by President Levy Mwanawasa. He later acted as President when the incumbent President Mwanawasa suffered a stroke and died in August 2008.  This was the first time Zambia experienced the loss of a sitting president. As Vice President, Banda presided over the transition leading to the presidential elections in 2008. His leadership during this fragile transition was widely recognised in safeguarding the country’s democracy, peace and stability.

Banda contested and won the presidential elections in 2008 by defeating his main political rival Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front (PF) party. However, his presidency was short-lived. He lost a tightly contested presidential election in 2011 to the opposition leader Michael Sata. He conceded defeat, congratulated the victorious opposition leader and gracefully handed over power. This move was rare, especially in Africa where some incumbent presidents hang on to power after losing elections. 

Banda’s decision to step down after his defeat reflected his integrity as a leader and his belief in the power of democracy. His action also helped to safeguard the country’s political stability during the post-election period. By gracefully stepping aside after his electoral defeat, Banda also built on the legacy established by the country’s founding President Kenneth Kaunda who had conceded defeat and handed over power following his loss in the country’s presidential election held in October 1991.

Banda’s decision to step down after his defeat reflected his integrity as a leader and his belief in the power of democracy @mubangalumpa

President Banda opted to devote his post-presidential life to promoting and defending democracy in Zambia and beyond. In 2012, he was invited as the Eighth President-In-Residence at Boston University’s African Presidential Centre (APC), where he conducted a series of lectures. In his inaugural lecture at Boston, Banda argued that: “If democracy is going to be secure in countries like Zambia, if development is going to take root; old leaders can’t cling to power or attempt to consolidate it at all costs.”

Banda used this opportunity to discuss his experiences as President of Zambia and also highlighted the trends in Africa’s democracy. His willingness to relinquish the presidency after his loss won him admiration from institutions such as the Jimmy Carter Foundation and the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa, which selected him to be part of election observer missions in a number of African countries.

After the death of Zambia’s first President Kenneth Kaunda in June last year, Banda stepped into the shoes of Kaunda as the country’s elder statesman. In his message to Zambians ahead of the crucial August vote in 2021, Banda encouraged the candidates in the elections to respect the outcome of the people’s choice through the ballot box and urged the incumbent to concede defeat if he lost. “Every election has winners and losers”, he said while urging the winners and losers to coexist. He encouraged citizens to uphold peace during the elections and further stressed the importance of national unity before and after the country’s elections. 

Following the outcome of Zambia’s August 2021 elections, President Banda once again stepped in, despite his failing health, to encourage then-incumbent President Edgar Lungu to concede defeat after signs of Lungu attempting to hang on to power despite losing the presidential vote to his main rival Hakainde Hichilema of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND). It was during this watershed moment that the country needed to tap into Banda’s diplomatic and persuasive abilities. Banda invited both Lungu and Hichilema to his residence for discussions during the aftermath of the August elections.  The pictures and videos of the two political rivals sharing a light moment at Banda’s residence circulated on various Zambian social media platforms soon after their meeting yet again proved Banda’s charming and distinctive leadership and his assumed role as the country’s elder statesman.

Whereas for many young Zambians, Banda’s political career came to prominence after his appointment as Vice President and later as President of Zambia, he had a long public career stretching back from the early 1960s. Banda had steadily carved his path in the country’s nationalist politics as a young freedom fighter after he joined the liberation struggle for independence. After the country’s independence from British colonial rule in 1964, the first President Kenneth Kaunda appointed him to serve the country as Ambassador to Egypt in 1965. Then he became the country’s Ambassador to the United States in 1967 and later served as Zambia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (UN) in the early 1970s. During this time, he was elected to head the UN Council for Namibia where he persuasively campaigned for the independence of Namibia. He later served as Zambia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1975 to 1976.  Thus as a minister and diplomat, Banda played an important role in the success of Zambia’s foreign policy which was centred on achieving liberation for southern Africa. 

While Kenneth Kaunda is largely credited for his role in international affairs and his contribution to the liberation of the region, his efforts would not have been realised without a team of young and devoted leaders around him such as Rupiah Banda. Like his predecessor Kaunda who ruled the country for 27 years and gave up power after his loss in an election, former Zambian President Rupiah Banda will be remembered for proving to the world that there can be life beyond the presidency. His moral integrity to relinquish power after his defeat in a democratic election serves as an example not only to Zambia but also to the African continent. 

Mubanga Lumpa is a Zambia-based political analyst. You can follow him on Twitter on @mubangalumpa.

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