Zambia travel report 1: Kenneth Kaunda and patriotism

Lusaka, a.d. VIII Id. Mai. MMDCCLXXII,

To attend the wedding of two friends of mine, I have travelled to Zambia. In these short travel reports I’ll give updates on the fascinating political economic things I encounter here. To start, former president Kenneth ‘super-Ken’ Kaunda and patriotism in Zambia.

Flying in from Johannesburg, it was announced that we would shortly be landing at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport. For someone who pretends to know everything about everything (I work at an economics department after all), I know remarkably little about Zambia. Consequently I did not have a clue who Kennet Kaunda was and why he was named after an airport.

The second day here we went to the Lusaka National Museum, which introduces Zambian history. The entire ground floor was used for an exhibition on Kenneth Kaunda, who turned out to have led the liberation movement against British rule and subsequently became president of Zambia for 30 years. The first thing I noticed was how this exhibition radiated pride that Zambia was present and recognised at the international stage. Many of the pictures showed Kenneth Kaunda meeting foreign leaders. It mattered little how many people died because of their policies, as long as Zambia was recognised by these leaders. For someone from a very old country (the Netherlands gained its recognition the 16th century) this seems strange. However, I can very well imagine that after having been treated like naughty children for 70 years, Zambians were exalted about finally being taken seriously. After all, the Dutch were happy enough to cooperate with English and French despots to rid themselves of their own Spanish despot. Similarly, Zambians were happy enough to cooperate with non-Western partners. After all, from a Zambian perspective, it was the West which colonised them, no Mao or Kruschev, and there was plenty to be gained from relationships with other countries regardless of their constitutional form. It is only in the West that we maintain good relationships with mad dictators, but simultaneously pretend to not have anything to do with them.

Kenneth Kaunda meets Mao Zedong

Secondly, I was interested to read on the second floor of the museum that Kaunda was decidedly no democrat. In the 1970s, around 10 years after Zambian independence, Kaunda introduced the one party state. After 25 years of mismanagement, the economy completely collapsed, and under pressure from regime insiders, Kaunda was forced to open the political system. As can be seen in the graph below, Zambian independence led to an initial increase in the freedom and fairness of elections. In the 1970s elections become less free again, to rise during 1990s, to eventually collapse again under the rule of the current President Lungu.


Surprisingly (to me), Kaunda is still widely seen as a hero here. I would be sceptical about a president abolishing free and fair elections who subsequently runs the economy into the ground. People here do not seem to regard him as having been corrupt (people, ughum, n = 4, three friends and a taxi driver). And even though he was removed from power in the early 1990s, he is still widely venerated, and the current government allows a major exhibition in the national museum. People especially think Kaunda was a better president than his successors.

To understand this popularity, I think it is important to not view the world as too black and white. Liberal democracy is important to me, but so is national independence. Regardless of the mistakes made afterwards (in my view), Kaunda led Zambia to international recognition and self-governance. This pride about having become independent should not be underestimated. It is still visible today, throughout Lusaka it is announced that president Lungu will receive Egyptian president el-Sisi. In the Netherlands this would be more embarrassing than a point of pride, here recognition and fruitful partnership seems to count for more. So Kaunda is a hero to many, regardless of any potential flaws. Nevertheless, I never found out why his parents named him after an airport.

Bottom line: Kaunda liberated Zambia, founded a one-party state and ran the economy into the ground. To understand his popularity it is important to relinquish a Dutch point of view.

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