By Neo Simutanyi
As Zambia honors fourth president Rupiah Bwezani Banda today, I reflect on my impressions of the man and his contribution to our country. Indeed, numerous eulogies have been written and said about our former president and one may be tempted to say that all that has to be said has been said. However, as a student of politics I have my own impressions of RB based on my personal experience with him.
I knew RB from a distance, when he was General Manager of Namboard, Senior Governor of Lusaka and later our Minister of Foreign Affairs. He came to prominence when he was Zambia’s Permanent Representative at the United Nations and President of the United Nations Council on Namibia, as he was always in the news.
His elevation to republican vice presidency from relative political obscurity was an important moment in my quest to understand the dynamics of Zambian politics. I came to learn that, despite being a member of the opposition, UNIP he had played a crucial role in ensuring President Levy Mwanawasa’s electoral victory in the 2006 presidential election. It should be recalled that the MMD and Levy Mwanawasa had a disastrous electoral performance in 2001, scrapping over the line on a controversial 29% victory against UPND’s Anderson Kambela Mazoka who received 27% of the national vote.
There have been conflicting accounts of who was responsible for recruiting RB to become Levy Mwanawasa’s campaigner, but one thing is clear he was not a member of the MMD when he campaigned for the MMD in Eastern Province in 2006. What moved him to campaign for a rival party and most importantly come out of retirement, could constitute a subject for future enquiry and may be irrelevant to my present reflection.
His appointment as republican vice president, when he was neither a member of the MMD nor an active politician at the time surprised many political observers. President Levy Mwanawasa explained his surprise appointment as a reward to Eastern Province for voting for the MMD and a punishment to Northern Province for not voting for his vice president Lupando Katoloshi Mwape. However, RB’s entry into the MMD marked an important reconfiguration of the East’s political re-alignment from UNIP to MMD.
The sudden and unexpected death of Levy Mwanawasa in August 2008 catapulted RB into the political limelight. Understandably, there was a split within the MMD and the nation as to whether it was right for Rupiah Banda to succeed Mwanawasa when he was an outsider. At the time I took the position that he stood a better chance of winning the election for the MMD, as he was ‘in the right place at the right time.’ Despite incessant attacks discrediting his record and suitability for office he triumphed in the internal MMD national executive committee elections over then finance minister Ng’andu Magande and others. He went on to win the presidency.
It was during the campaign for the presidency that I first encounters RB. He called me one day and thanked me for my support. I was surprised that he recognised my public discourse as an endorsement of his candidature, when I was not a member of his party. He asked me if I knew why certain people hated him so much, when he had not wronged them in any way. I told him it is the nature of politics and a change of power, alters people’s economic and political fortunes. It may not have been personal; it had to do with interests being threatened by a prospect of a change at the top with someone they did not. A fear that the new president would have his own circle of friends and associates. RB defeated his former colleague in UNIP, Michael Chilufya Sata who had put together a formidable political challenge for power.
His ascension to the presidency was an accident of history. I was one of those people who argued then that he should not seek re-election as that would blight his otherwise illustrious political career. However, there were other people who were more influential than I, who needed him for purposes of preserving their political careers and access to state largesse. They prevailed. He contested the 2011 presidential elections and lost to Michael Chilufya Sata of the PF.
The magnanimity with which he conceded defeat and peacefully handed over power has been widely recognized as one of his lasting legacies. He accepted electoral defeat graciously as a reflection of the will of the Zambian people. Few African leaders are known to accept defeat, let alone allow themselves to lose an election. As the first real transfer of power in a multiparty democracy in Southern Africa after the return to multiparty politics, RB’s concession reverberated across the continent. Zambia won admiration as not only a beacon of peace, but of democracy.
RB was recognized by the international community and appointed as head of several election monitoring missions in a number of African countries, including DRC and Kenya. He was also President in Residence at Boston University in the United States. His counsel was keenly sought by statesmen and political leaders in the region and from the continent.
In October 2014 President Michael Sata unexpectedly died in London. The PF and the nation was thrown into a leadership crisis. It was at that time that a few people within the MMD persuaded him to run for office, as he had only served a short term of three years. After a fractious leadership selection process, the PF settled for one, Edgar Chagwa Lungu, a relative obscure politician, who had only been first elected to parliament in 2011, based on the false assumption that he was preferred by Sata. Lungu had been fast-tracked by his colleagues, held position of defence and justice minister alongside that of secretary general of PF.
Sometime in December 2014 I received a phone call from James Banda, one of RB’s sons who told me that his father wanted to see me. I obliged and was surprised to learn that he invited me to ask for my advice regarding calls for him to contest the January 2015 presidential by-election. I advised him it may not be a good idea for him to contest the election considering that he was considered an elder statesman. Instead he could render his support to an opposition candidate who stood a real chance of defeating the PF candidate, Edgar Lungu. He was frank with me. He told me of his disappointment with Hakainde Hichilema and UPND, arguing that they were responsible for his 2011 electoral defeat. He informed me that there were talks going on to get him to support HH, but he had serious reservations.
To cut the long story short, the Supreme Court halted RB’s ambitions to recontest the 2015 presidential by-elections on account that he did not qualify, as the MMD’s substantive leader, Nevers Mumba was the automatic party nominee. The decision of the Supreme Court appears to have been engineered from within the political establishment who feared that an RB candidature would have benefited HH and the UPND, as the two parties appears evenly matched.
Following his disqualification I received a call from James Banda, asking me to talk to his father who was being asked to render support to Edgar Lungu and the PF. I was surprised at the request, as supporting PF was the last thing I thought RB would consider. But he told me he was seriously considering the request and wanted to find out what I thought about it. In my first meeting with him he had said uncharitable things about Edgar Lungu and I don’t know what had changed. However, despite my advice discouraging him from publicly supporting the PF, I was to read a few days after our phone conversation that he had endorsed Edgar Lungu and would campaign for the PF in Eastern Province. This was despite the fact that his own party, the MMD had a presidential candidate in the name of Nevers Sekwila Mumba.
The decision by RB to support Edgar Lungu and the PF split the MMD into three factions – the Mutati faction that supported HH, the RB faction that supported PF and the MMD faction that rallied behind Nevers Mumba. Importantly, the election was a two-horse race between PF and UPND, and Nevers Mumba and the MMD had a disastrous showing. So one legacy of RB that is rarely talked about is the fact that his decision to support Lungu in 2015 dealt a death knell to the MMD as a party, that today it has no single MP in parliament. He should therefore be credited for reconfiguring Zambia’s party system, from multiple parties to a two-party system since 2015.
Following the August 2021 general elections and the landslide victory by UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema by almost 60%, there were fears that president Lungu may petition the results. RB showed that he was an elder statesman when he brought together HH and Lungu to agree on a peaceful handover of power. It remains to be known what the terms of the agreement were as that has never been divulged.
As we remember Rupiah Banda today during his state funeral, it is important to recognize that he was an accidental president who humanized the presidency. His simplicity and amiable personality made him easily interact with people of different backgrounds. He was an affectionate man who was loyal to his friends and family. He had an infectious sense of humor, overly friendly to everyone. As a political leader, RB was very tolerant to his critics and I cannot remember any incident when he ordered the police to arrest those who criticized him, either from the media or opposition parties. He had a big heart, Zambia has lost a decent human being. May his soul rest in peace.