The respected publication describes president Banda as a distinguished elder statesman and living historical figure who guided Zambia through a difficult period.
Although president Banda’s foes attempted to vilify and humiliate him through trumped up court charges, he successfully proved his innocence before the law.
Forbes contributor Mfonobong Nsehe writes that Banda, who left the Presidency in 2011, has since settled comfortably into his role as an African statesman. He frequently heads election observer missions across the continent riding on his impeccable democratic credentials that saw him graciously concede defeat in the September 2011 general elections when his Movement for Multiparty Democracy party (MMD) lost power.
Whatever anyone says about ‘RB’, as he is fondly known, many Zambians agree that the country prospered during his leadership, with GDP expanding between 9-10% a year. More recently, the slowdown in global metals prices has deeply hurt the Zambian economy, and as the August 11 election approaches, there are heated exchanges among the campaigns over who can best lead the country to economic recovery.
I recently had the opportunity to chat with President Banda. We discussed legacy, the removal and restoration of his immunity, and his views on the upcoming general election which holds on the 11th of August.
QUESTION & ANSWER WITH RB
FORBES: You’ve just returned from attending the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, and then hit the campaign trail in support of President Edgar Lungu in Eastern Province. What’s it like to compare campaigns in the U.S. and in Zambia?
RB: The convention in Philadelphia was a remarkable event, in my view. In a time when so many voters have become embittered, at a time when there is so much anger, fear, and conflict in politics, many speakers nevertheless managed to make a connection. The father who lost his son in the war was heartbreaking. First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a speech that moved many people to tears. There was a lot emotion there, and a lot of energy.
Here in Zambia, you often see the same thing. Some people are tired of politics, going to vote three times in five years is unusual. Some people are suffering, and want to have access to better opportunities to improve their lives. The people I speak to in Eastern Province say that they want stability, and some are very worried by the tensions and provocations of campaigns, which at times can be very negative and harsh. They want a president who will take care of them and treat them equally; a president who will unite Zambia.
FORBES: When you were president, did you feel that Zambia’s unity was at risk?
RB: My first preoccupation once I became President was to keep together this entity called Zambia, to keep it united. I became Acting President following the sudden and tragic death of our late President Levy Mwanawasa, at the same time as the global economic crisis. The country was on edge, and we needed to work together as one nation instead of fighting against each other.
I felt that was my first preoccupation because without that all the other things you will talk about are not possible. So I was very concerned about creating a national feel of unity in our country which will result in continued peace we have always enjoyed. It all started from the slogan of our founding fathers, “One Zambia, One Nation.”
That is why my slogan was a President for all Zambians, it was not just talk. It was intended for everyone to feel comfortable with me whether they voted for me or not, whether they belonged to my tribe or not, political party or not, I felt that for a leader at that level they become some kind of everybody’s leader.
FORBES: Some observers say that Zambia faces deepening instability during this election. Are you worried about potential conflicts?
RB: No, I have faith in the people of Zambia. Most of us don’t want to fight. Most of us want to live peacefully together and focus on building, growing, and developing. These negative stories that you hear are not always true, but sadly there are some groups in our country willing to do anything, so we must remain committed to our system of democracy.
Just 52 years since our independence, Zambia is and remains a leading example of democratic stability in Africa, but that stability does not come for free – we must work for it every day.
Above all, we must reject tribalism. When you have 73 different tribes in one country, there are too many opportunities for politicians to divide people against each other for their own gain. I first entered politics at a different time. As a young man, I was a member of the youth wing of the African National Congress Party, eventually crossing over to join Dr. Kenneth David Kaunda in the Zambia African National Congress Party that eventually evolved to UNIP, the movement that won the country Independence.
During the independence struggle, we could not afford to fight with each other over where we come from and what language we speak. There was a pan-African spirit that I think we should all embrace again today. We had to work together in order to obtain our freedom, and now we must work together to obtain our success.
FORBES: Following your stepping down from the presidency in 2011, the new government stripped your immunity and put you on trial. Do you feel vindicated now that you’ve been acquitted of the charges?
RB: From the very beginning, this was a purely politically motivated attack, but one that created very harmful confusion and put many people into bad positions.
I still remember when parliament voted to lift immunity, despite a standing court injunction. I was here and watching on TV. I saw some people walking around with their hands in their pockets feeling great about themselves as though they had achieved something. Of course, it was hurtful to listen to all this, but you know how can people go to parliament and say the false things they said. The speaker himself was clearly at pains with a lot of problems while trying to explain why all the rules of parliament should be overruled in order to remove my immunity, but it was obvious that the pressures were too much on him and all the other people.
But I nevertheless went through the process, going to court for years and years. I sat in that box (dock) and kept my cool, kept my love and kept my smile and the ruling came and I washed my hands that I had nothing to do with these things so I had the last laugh. When I was finally acquitted and on the day of the clearance there was a lot of celebration. At the court it was great to see the emotions of people in my favour and so on, and I am so grateful to all the supporters who stood by me despite all lies being thrown around.
FORBES: You were previously President of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), and you nearly ran on the MMD ticket again in January 2015. Now you are campaigning in favor of Patriotic Front (PF) President Edgar Lungu. What changed your mind?
RB: After the 2011 defeat, I had the presence of mind not to insist on remaining the party president. I believed it was time for new leaders to have an opportunity, so I paved the way for the convention that ended up electing Nevers Mumba. Nevers had my full support at the time.
However after four years leading the party, many MMD members had come back to me, asking me to come out of retirement – not to lead the party, but to be their nominee for that election. I think he (Mumba) was confused by those who did not want me to come back by telling him that I was challenging his leadership, but in fact I was not challenging his leadership because I made it very clear that I accepted their call as a party MMD for me to be their presidential candidate and not the president of the party.
Is the MMD undergoing a period of uncertainty? Perhaps – but I am optimistic for MMD’s future. I do not think there is anything wrong with the party, its vision, and its many wonder members. The people who talk about it reforming are its enemies. If you compare what the MMD did or how they ran this country, I do not think there is need to reform. In fact many people would love to see that way of governance.
During my presidency I worked with many of Zambia’s most talented people, such as former Finance Minister Situmbeko Musokotwane, Felix Mutati (Commerce), Secretary to the Treasury Likolo Ndalamei, Caleb Fundanga (Bank of Zambia Governor), among many others. I will never forget all those who helped Zambia succeed, and I hope to pay them tribute in my upcoming memoir which will be published next year.
FORBES: What advice do you have for voters in the upcoming election?
RB: All of us whom one group or another listen to, all of us leaders of political parties, churches, civil society and every direction should call for peaceful elections because without them even the one who is going to win is not going to be able to run this country, because once trouble starts you can’t stop it.
I personally believe that President Edgar Lungu deserves to be re-elected. He is honest and fair and not vindictive. He has demonstrated that he has the maturity and calmness to guide the country, and continue the legacy of unity. But of course there are many other Zambians who support other candidates, and they too are our brothers and sisters, so we should respect everyone’s opinion and always look to work together, no matter who wins.