Zambia: death of a gallant diplomat, politician

For many ordinary Zambians, deceased former presidents are known more for their physical stature and personality than for the policies they adopted while in office.

For Chiluba, it was her short stature and her flamboyant attire; Levy Mwanawasa, his stammering and pragmatic approach to politics; for Michael Sata it is for his rudeness, and Kenneth Kaunda for his hesitant speech and royal image.

For Rupiah Bwezani Banda, who died at the age of 85 after battling colon cancer, he will be remembered for his charming disposition which endeared him to many including his haters.

This explains why his comedic way of speaking his native Chewa language has become a part of Zambian social tradition.

This includes phrases like mwana wanyoko – your mother’s son, and kanitundila kamambala – the little brat pissed on me – when a monkey in the grounds of State House urinated on him.

The burly octogenarian politician had lived a full life as a freedom fighter, diplomat, sports organizer and politician.

Banda developed an interest in leadership early on while a student at Munali Secondary School, an experience which later put him in a better position in the turmoil of Zambian politics.

He joined the African National Congress Party (ANC) which fought for black rule in the copper-rich country, then known as Northern Rhodesia.

It was while at Munali that the enlightened young man, along with other students, decided to join politics by becoming a member of the Zambian African National Congress (ZANC) led by the late Harry Mwaanga Nkumbula.

Even as a young man, he knew that all was not well in the country which was dominated by minority white settlers who pushed the majority of the natives into blue collar jobs.

It was not the right time for an educated African to live in a country defined by the color bar with the white settlers at the top, the parasitic Asian merchant class second and the majority black population at the bottom.

Later, Banda was to abandon ZANC to join UNIP, the latter being led by a lanky, zonk-haired man, Kenneth Kaunda, who would become the country’s first African leader.

According to people like Luke Mumba, who was at Munali Secondary School with Banda, he was a jovial person with an infectious laugh that won him many friends.

Academically, he was gifted and earned himself a scholarship to study at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia.

He then obtained his second scholarship to the institution of the International Union of Students to study economic history at the prestigious Swedish University of Lund where he obtained the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree in 1964.

Rupiah Banda was born on February 13, 1937 in the town of Miko, Gwanda in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) to Zambian migrant workers.

Only second to South Africa in employment opportunities, Southern Rhodesia was the regional El Dorado for many Africans in search of greener pastures.

His parents, Bwezani and Sarah Banda, like the multitude of other Africans from Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, went to Zimbabwe in search of employment opportunities.

Young Banda spent his childhood in Zimbabwe where he was first sponsored by a local Dutch Reformed Church preacher and later by the family of BR Naik, who helped him financially and enabled him to obtain a good education that was denied to many Africans at the time.

The Naiks, like their Northern Rhodesian counterparts the Patels, including the most popular philanthropist Kanjombe-Devhali Rambanai Patel, were prominent political activists and because of their association, Rupiah also became interested in politics from as early as his youngest age.

Later, while studying in Sweden, he also served as UNIP’s representative in Northern Europe and helped publicize the party’s cause.

He also helped secure scholarships for several Zambian students who went on to hold important government positions in the young nation called Zambia.

He returned to Zambia after completing his courses in Sweden and enrolled at the National Institute of Public Affairs (NIPA) for a course in diplomacy and international relations.

At 27, he became Zambia’s first ambassador to Egypt, but left in 1967 when the country was embroiled in war.

At 30, he was appointed as Zambia’s Ambassador to the United States (US) and moved to Washington DC.

Later in 1970, he was appointed Director General of the National Agricultural Marketing Board (NAMBOARD), the state-owned crop marketing company.

He then took over the head of the Rural Development Corporation (RDC), the state agricultural holding company, one of the largest state conglomerates of its time.

Banda was also a prominent sports administrator managing several sports disciplines like football and boxing.

In 1974, President Banda became Zambia’s Permanent Representative to the UN and later served as Zambia’s Foreign Minister from 1975, a critical period in Southern African history.

At this time, Zambian diplomacy focused on southern African liberation efforts and the country’s role was central to the events and initiatives leading up to the resolution.

Zambia’s abiding interest in the liberation of the region meant that its foreign minister was among the key figures in the diplomacy and events that ultimately led to the emancipation of the region.

As such, Banda is known and has interacted extensively with many leaders in the region today.

He also served as Chairman of the United Nations Council on Namibia, which was effectively the government of Namibia, while the issue of South Africa’s disputed tenure over the territory was resolved.

President Banda was MP for Munali constituency in Lusaka for many years.

He also served as Senior Governor of Lusaka District, where he was the political and administrative head of the Zambian capital.

After the 2006 general election, he was selected for the post of Vice President in the administration of Dr Levy Mwanawasa and took over presidential responsibilities after Mwanawasa suffered a stroke in June 2008.

After Dr. Mwanawasa’s death in August 2008, Banda became interim president and as a Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) candidate, he won the October 2008 presidential election.

Seeking re-election in September 2011, he was defeated by opposition leader Michael Sata.

On March 13, 2013, Banda became the second head of state in Zambian history to have his presidential immunity lifted due to charges of abuse of authority, corruption and embezzlement of oil revenues.

He married his first wife, Hope Mwansa Makulu, in 1966 and together the couple had three sons.

His second wife Thandiwe Banda, a professor of political science, was thirty years his junior.

Banda also has two sons from previous relationships and a set of twins from her marriage to Thandiwe.

He was also the executive chairman of the Zambia China Friendship Association, which was established to strengthen the basic ties between the people of the two countries.

He was also the eighth President-in-Residence at the African Presidential Center at Boston University, his residency spanning from March to November 2012.

As part of his residency, he visited schools and universities that were part of the African-American Universities Collaboration of the African Presidential Center, including Morehouse College, Elizabeth City State University, the University of Dar es Salaam and the University of Ghana, Legon.

Zambia will remember him as an accessible, jovial, down-to-earth man and a people.

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