The first President of the Republic of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, father of the independence of the former British protectorate he ruled for 27 years, died Thursday, June 17 at the age of 97, the government said.
It is “Peacefully died” at 2:30 p.m. (12:30 p.m. GMT) at the hospital, government secretary Simon Miti said on national television. A national mourning of twenty-one days has been decreed. The former head of state, nicknamed “KK”, had been hospitalized Monday in a military hospital in the capital Lusaka, for pneumonia.
The news of the death circulated in the afternoon on social networks, before the official announcement. In public places, serious-looking Zambians kept their eyes riveted on television screens. “It’s a dark day for Zambia”Lusaka resident Herbert Simbeye, 50, who attended the same church as Mr Kaunda told AFP.
Also called “The African Gandhi” for his non-violent activism, Kenneth Kaunda had led the former Northern Rhodesia to bloodless independence in October 1964.
“A true African icon”
Claiming to be socialist and close to Moscow, he ruled the country for twenty-seven years, largely under a one-party regime, the mismanagement of which caused a serious economic and social crisis. After violent riots, he accepted multiparty elections in 1991 and was defeated.
The current president, Edgar Lungu, regretted the disappearance of a “True African icon” in a post on Facebook. “You left when we least expected”, he wrote. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson offered condolences to the Zambian people on Twitter, expressing “His sadness”.
The former head of state has supported numerous movements fighting for independence or against the powers held by the white minority in other countries in the region, including the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa.
“A giant in the struggle for the liberation of South Africa and the continent has fallen”, regretted the party on Thursday in a statement, while former South African President Thabo Mbeki hailed “A man of the people”.
“One of his best sons”
Since his retirement in 2000, Mr. Kaunda has placed his authority at the service of crisis resolution on the African continent, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Togo and Burundi. “Africa has lost one of its best sons”, the African Union said in a statement.
The former president was also engaged in the fight against AIDS, after having publicly announced that one of his sons had died of the disease. His health had been weakened by the death of his wife Betty in September 2012. They had had nine children. In one of his last public appearances, on the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s funeral in December 2013, he jumped on a podium at the age of 89.
A small, poor country in southern Africa with colossal debt, Zambia has enjoyed relative political stability since Kenneth Kaunda left power.