Zambia’s former president Rupiah Banda dies

Banda was born in the small town of Gwanda in neighbouring Zimbabwe.

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Zambia’s former president Rupiah Banda

Zambia’s former president Rupiah Banda died on Friday at the age of 85 after a long battle with colon cancer, his son Andrew told AFP.

“He is gone”, Andrew Banda told an AFP correspondent in Lusaka.

The southern African country’s fourth leader since independence from Britain served for three years from 2008, a term remembered for economic growth and corruption allegations. 

Banda was vice-president when his predecessor Levy Mwanawasa unexpectedly succumbed to a stroke, propelling him into the top job. But the veteran diplomat was defeated in 2011 elections, despite overseeing major economic growth during his tenure.

Zambia’s economy expanded during Banda’s brief presidency, mainly on the back of rising copper prices and a surge in Chinese investment. He pursued a construction spree started under Mwanawasa, building much-needed roads, hospitals and schools.

Zambia recorded a 7.6 percent increase in growth for 2011, up from 6.4 percent the previous year, for which Banda took credit. He had hoped the economic uptick would convince voters to keep him in power.

Most of Zambia’s 17.9 million inhabitants, however, did not reap the benefits of mining and constructions booms. Wealth accumulated in the hands of a few as corruption allegations surfaced, marring his reputation.

In September 2011, he was heavily defeated by opposition leader Michael Sata.

Former Zambian President Michael Sata

‘Man of the land’

Banda was born on February 19, 1937 in the small town of Gwanda in neighbouring Zimbabwe, then the British colony of Southern Rhodesia. His parents had moved from neighbouring Zambia, formerly Northern Rhodesia, to seek work.

Banda returned to his country of origin and later pursued his studies in Ethiopia and Sweden, earning a degree in economics.

In the early 1960s, Banda started a diplomatic career in Europe. He was subsequently appointed ambassador to Egypt, the United States and the United Nations. Domestic politics caught up with Banda in 1975, when he briefly served as foreign minister and then mines minister for Zambia’s first president Kenneth Kaunda.

A long-time member of Kaunda’s United National Independence Party (UNIP), Banda was also a prominent businessman and an ardent football fan.  He led several state-run companies under Kaunda and was the owner of KB Davis, a company that supplied mining equipment in Zambia’s north-central copper-belt region.

He also dabbled in sports and at one time served as vice-president to the Football Association of Zambia.

Despite his achievements, Banda still cast himself as a man of the people.

“In addition to my political experience I am also a farmer, I am a man of the land,” he told AFP in a 2008 interview.

“I know what it is like when the rains are late and when a crop fails.”

‘Friend of thieves’

Banda had planned to retire from politics and end years of active engagement with UNIP to settle on a farm in eastern Zambia’s Chipata district. But Mwanawasa dragged him back, naming Banda vice-president shortly after his 2006 election victory against Sata.   

When Mwanawasa died two years later, Banda out-manoeuvered a dozen other candidates from the now ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) party to fill in for the late head of state. He was soon accused of awarding government contracts to his children and slacking on Mwanawasa’s anti-graft crusade.

In 2009, Banda refused to appeal the acquittal of former president Frederick Chiluba, tried for alleged embezzlement under his predecessor. He then disbanded Mwanawasa’s corruption task force, prompting Sata to blast him as a “friend of thieves”.

Banda announced he had been diagnosed with colon cancer in 2020.

Long before, he had re-married with Thandiwe Banda, a political science teacher almost 40 years his junior. When Banda took office, she became the youngest first lady in Zambia’s history. 

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