Will of the people: Zambia’s legacy of peaceful transfer of power


Arnold Tsunga

ZAMBIANS have participated in large numbers in the last elections. They know the individual and collective vote matters. They know the individual and collective vote has more power than all the bullets, soldiers, police and intelligence in Zambia.

I do not think that as southern Africans, we are conscious of and thankful for the legacy and precedent of peaceful transfer of power after democratic elections that the late Kenneth Kaunda bestowed upon us.

Kaunda, the founding President of Zambia, ruled the country for nearly three decades from 1964, when the country secured independence from Britain.

In a surprising turn of events in 1991, Kaunda lost in elections to Frederick Chiluba, creating anxiety about whether we would see for the first time in southern Africa, a liberation party peacefully transferring power to an opposition party.

No one expected a liberation party to lose power through the ballot as had become tradition in virtually all southern African countries except Zambia.

In an amazing show of statesmanship Kaunda conceded defeat and transferred power to an opposition political party peacefully, remarking in the process that: “The true lesson of democracy is to accept the verdict of the people … This I will do … I have done my best for Zambia. . . (But) this is the nature of multiparty politics. You win some, you lose some. It is not the end of the world.”

In a flash, Kaunda achieved for Zambia what has not been achieved by any other leader in post-liberation southern Africa.

Not only was he the first leader to transfer power peacefully between presidents after elections, but the first and so far the only peaceful transfer of power from a liberation movement to an opposition in southern Africa.

Contrary to Kaunda’s remarks, which contribute to building a strong culture of multiparty democracy, some leaders in the region, like Zimbabwe’s late former President Robert Mugabe, refused to allow the electorate to decide who should be in power via elections, arguing that the ballot could not beat the bullet: Mugabe made it quite clear that “power cannot be taken by a pen but by a gun”.

Zambia’s democracy is therefore probably the most developed and unyielding in post-liberation southern Africa.

With Kaunda’s legacy, one that accepts that the ballot is stronger than the bullet, Zambians have demonstrated confidence and belief in elections. The African Union Observer mission says that “a total of 7 023 499 voters were registered, which is about 83,5% of projected eligible persons”.

The Zambian youth has made a big difference in defending, protecting and enhancing their country’s democracy. Zambians have participated in large numbers in the elections. They know the individual and collective vote matters. They know the individual and collective vote has more power than all bullets, soldiers, police and intelligence in Zambia. They know that presidents and their friends can misbehave and privatise power and public policy for a period in between elections but they have the final say at elections. They know that some presidents when drunk with power can try to change Kaunda’s legacy of peaceful transfer of power through elections, but that after all is said and done it is ultimately the people who decide.

How wonderful it is that through their founding president Zambians can demonstrate African Union’s aspiration and ideal that the authority to govern comes from the will of the people expressed freely through elections. This aspiration and value is a universal one codified in 1948 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says: “The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures”.

This is a value that prevents conflict, that builds and guarantees peace, that builds societies to be strong and prosperous democracies and economies. It protects societies from State capture and destruction of the sovereign will of the people to govern themselves.

The people of Zambia know and believe that elections matter. They know they always have the last say. Let us hope that other nations in the region will emulate the Zambian example and let electoral democracy flourish.

That will make southern Africa a powerful, prosperous, peaceful and just region. May the soul of Kenneth Kaunda rest in power and keep guiding the southern African region to democratic growth.

Arnold Tsunga is the country director of the National Democratic Institute, Zimbabwe, and chairperson of the Southern Africa Hu man Rights Defenders Network. He writes in his personal capacity