By Chris Bishop
Kenneth Kaunda has seen it all in modern Zambia since he took the reins of power at the country’s birth in 1964 and celebrated his 96th birthday on April 28. Even then, I am sure he wasn’t prepared for the crazy days when he stood trial for allegedly sabotaging the very nation he fathered.
My mind went racing back to the colonial-style High Court in Lusaka, in 1998, with its Roman columns, sweeping drive and oval lawn at the front.
It is a trial neither of us will forget. In the dark of every Monday morning, for five months, I would leave home in Harare, not too long after midnight and drive with the crew to the Chirundu border. We would cross at day break and then drive hell-for-leather to Lusaka to catch the opening of proceedings at 9 AM – we would work all week end then drive back home arriving just before midnight on a Friday.
Kaunda, then a sprightly 74-year-old was arrested on Christmas Day 1997 and charged with assisting a failed coup months before, I also covered, that could have come from comic opera. On that summer’s day, a bunch of disgruntled, drunken, officers led a company of unwitting soldiers in storming ZNBC – the country’s TV channel. The soldiers smashed through the gates with armoured personnel carriers and many were soon dreaming of becoming the next minister of defence.
Their leader – calling himself Captain Solo more dramatic than his real name Captain Stephen Lungu – went on TV, clearly still under the influence, to threaten live executions on air. This power lasted as long as it takes to boil an egg. The rest of the Zambian army came down on ZNBC with a vengeance – an eye-witness told me the greatest difficulty they faced was winkling the comic opera warriors out of hiding in cupboards throughout the TV station.
I believe that Kaunda was as surprised as the rest of us by the coup, but that didn’t stop a beady-eyed government that – the year before – tried to strip the president of his citizenship. He was charged the world and its wife turned up at the High Court in Lusaka. At the time, we saw it as a clumsy attempt to kangaroo court Kaunda into jail and out of the political scene.
It was chaos on the first day of the trial. Outside, Kaunda supporters, from his party UNIP, sang songs and gave the party two-fingered victory salute.
“Veeeee!,” they shouted as we hurried up the long flight of steps and through the big wooden doors. Inside there were more journalists than police outside. A couple of guys broke court regulations to bring cameras inside and interviewed Kaunda in the dock.
“These are frightened little men trying to hurt me!” says Kaunda more than once in the interview. He had grown a big white beard in protest at his incarceration and looked a bit like Father Christmas.
As the hearing drew to a close on the first day, it was pandemonium. Police realised that the TV interview had been done in the dock they chased down the fleeing crews outside the court and tried to snatch their tapes. A cornered CNN camerawoman poked a Zambian policeman in the eyes with both fingers – kung fu style – before fleeing to the safety of the nearby US Embassy.
That night the Kaunda interview ran on thousands of television bulletins around the world. By breakfast time the next day, the police and army were hopping mad.
So it was, next morning, I had to rub my eyes when I arrived at court. Barbed wire had been thrown around the building, there were armoured vehicles parked outside. Everywhere there seemed to be police armed to the teeth. On the roof stood a line of soldiers with their rifles cocked; outside there was one journalist – me.
Yet inside an even bigger shock waited. There were airport security metal detectors and as I came through there were the head of police and the head of intelligence – a shaven-headed hulk of a man by the name of Xavier Chungu – waiting for me. I had said not a word before the two advanced towards me jabbing their fingers towards my head.
“You try to speak to that old man today and you will be severely man handled!” shouted the police chief as he snatched my notebook and started leafing through it.
“Yes, I can take you for a ride, you know what that means,” snarled Chungu. From my second year intermediate knowledge of state thuggery that meant a ride in the boot of a car followed by a beating at the end of it.
“Welcome to Zambia the warm heart of Africa!” was my sarcastic reply, with a smile, but I was angry.
What ensued was five months of argument. The judges acquitted Kaunda and there followed one of the biggest and most euphoric celebrations I have ever seen outside an African court. I can still see the lawyers for Kaunda – dressed in wigs and gowns – leaning out of the top windows of the building holding their fingers in the V for victory sign to the cheering crowds below.
A victory lap around Lusaka by the bearded Kaunda followed and was reported around the world with the narrative of an old man defiant and victorious over questionable politicians.At the time, we journalists joked : Kaunda 1 Government 0.
Twenty- two years on former President Frederick Chiluba and many of his ministers who oversaw the prosecution have passed on, so has the ill-fated Captain Solo.
The shaven-headed Chungu fell afoul of the authorities in Lusaka and was on the run for a while, before pitching up, surprisingly , in politics in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 2019 elections. The head of police is presumably enjoying his pension.
Whereas Kaunda is still going strong with his peace work, powerful constitution, and famous sense of humour.
When I finally go to interview Kaunda on that memorable day, the last question I asked him, in jest, was why he was looking more like Father Christmas than an ex-African president. He laughed and beamed.
“Chris, Father Christmas, is that not a noble person to be?”
It probably is KK. Happy 96th birthday and thanks for the memory.