Lessons from Zambia’s Banda to African Leaders

By Jon Herskovit

With tears in his eyes, Zambia’s Rupiah Banda achieved a rare thing in African politics by conceding defeat graciously and with his gaze firmly on the future, not the past.

In his concession speech, Banda may have been delivering a message to Zimbabwe, Malawi, Angola and the Democratic Republic of the Congo where entrenched leaders have suppressed democracy or used deadly force to crush protests.

“My generation . the generation of the independence struggle — must now give way to new ideas; ideas for the 21st century,” Banda said.

“Did we become grey and lacking in ideas? Did we lose momentum? Our duty now is to go away and reflect on any mistakes we may have made and learn from them.

“If we do not, we do not deserve to contest power again,” the 74-year-old said.

Banda took part in his country’s biggest transfer of power when one-party rule ended in 1991 and the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), a party he would eventually lead, took over. Its 20 years of control ended with Banda’s defeat by opposition leader Michael Sata, who swept to victory on the back of a desire for change.

“Now is not the time for violence and retribution,” Banda told reporters. “Now is the time to unite and build tomorrow’s Zambia together.”

The peaceful and democratic transition to a rival party in a region known for autocrats clinging to power by subverting the ballot box, and impoverishing their people, is a hopeful sign for African politics.

“Up until now all of the kudos has been given to South Africa for its peaceful transfer of power after apartheid and then from one president to another,” political analyst Nic Borain said.

“But the trend toward representative democracy is perhaps evident in what has happened in Zambia.”

The Zambian election stood in stark contrast to polls less than a year ago in the Ivory Coast where the incumbent Laurent Gbagbo clung to power and sparked a battle with his rival, whom global powers said was the clear winner of the vote.

THE RUBBER BOOT DIPLOMAT

Banda was educated at Lund University in Sweden, obtaining a BA in economic history in 1964 and becoming one of about 100 Zambians with a university degree at the time of independence.

At just 27, he became Zambia’s first ambassador to Egypt before moving to the United States in 1967 as Lusaka’s representative to Washington.

Banda, a career diplomat, has joked he was plucked from working on his farm in rubber boots to become vice-president by Levy Mwanawasa in 2006.

He faced a tough challenge for the top job in a 2008 presidential by-election after Mwanawasa’s death in office that year.

Once in office, he helped open the country to foreign investment, mostly from China, and sought change in neighbouring Zimbabwe, where President Robert Mugabe has clung to power for decades while his country became an economic basket case.

One of the greatest gifts Banda could give to the struggle for democracy in Africa is to fade into retirement and serve as an example of humble defeat, analysts said.

In his concession speech, Banda said that was exactly what he wanted.

“Now it is time for me to step aside. Now is the time for a new leader. My time is done. It is time for me to say ‘goodbye’.” (Editing by Robert Woodward)