A legacy of dignity shapes an African election

The peaceful aftermath of Zambia’s Aug. 12 election may be a result of the nation’s founder leaving office quietly after an election loss, having taught his people the power of dignity.

Zambian President-elect Hakainde Hichilema talks to reporters in Lusaka Aug. 16 after he won the southern African country's presidency, defeating President Edgar Lungu.

After his death in June, Kenneth Kaunda was widely praised as a pioneer leader in post-colonial Africa. Fondly known as KK, he led his nation of Zambia to independence in 1964. Perhaps his most lasting legacy lies in teaching the practical worth of universal, God-derived dignity to a people long ruled by Britain. Son of a preacher, he exemplified that quality in 1991 when he graciously handed over power after a humiliating election defeat and 27 years as president.

His kind demeanor during his downfall “suddenly transformed how Zambians saw him,” Africa expert Stephen Chan wrote in a tribute on the African Arguments news site. “It was as if nothing became him as much as leaving office with such dignity.” His public display of equality as a citizen was really a call for national unity. Despite being overshadowed on the continent by Nelson Mandela, he became a beloved elder statesman.

This past week, that legacy paid off in an election on Aug. 12. The incumbent president, Edgar Lungu, whose rule was seen as corrupt and heavy-handed toward opponents, lost to a longtime opponent, Hakainde Hichilema. Turnout was large at more than 70%, with a high number of first-time voters under age 24. While Mr. Lungu at first suggested fraud for his ballot loss, he backed off quickly and conceded to Mr. Hichilema, calling him “my brother” and promising a peaceful transfer of power. In Africa, such events are rare; sitting presidents win 88% of the elections that are contested.

For his part, Mr. Hichilema, a former CEO at an accounting firm and a cattle rancher, promised an inclusive government that draws from Zambia’s diverse ethnicities. He held no grudge for having been arrested during Mr. Lungu’s regime. The two men met to start the transition. In a speech, President-elect Hichilema offered this to the departing president: “We are not going into office to arrest those who arrested us.”

Mr. Hichilema won with a landslide because of his business experience and his promises to fight corruption, improve Zambia’s democracy, and lift a dormant economy. Yet in their post-election behavior, both candidates are winners for living up to KK’s legacy of civic dignity.

Zambia will now have its third peaceful transfer of power between a ruling party and an opposition party since 1991. Not many countries in Africa can claim that record. No wonder KK’s death was a moment of self-reflection for Zambia’s 18 million people.

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