The grey-haired old man’s gaze and composure cast a reassuring image as he took to the lectern in front of him in Nairobi and began to impart wisdom on how to run for election and when to quit for the sake of God and country.
Former Zambian President Rupiah Banda had carefully prepared his notes with a solemn message to candidates contesting in Kenya's March 4 General Election to fathom, even remotely, the possibility of losing.
He implored candidates to muster the humility to concede in the event of a loss to save the country unnecessary tension and possible violence.
And what better person to give the lessons than the 79-year-old statesman who conceded an election and gave up power to opposition candidate Michael Sata of the Patriotic Front without raising a finger after losing by a small margin – 180,000 votes – in September last year. Despite enormous pressure from some of his lieutenants who demanded a recount or legal redress.
“In my conscience I knew conceding defeat was the right thing to do,” the former president told an attentive audience in Nairobi this week. “I was in power and could have held on but I said the public good had to come before the interest of anyone and that was when I decided to concede defeat.”
Mr Banda, who was Zambia’s fourth president, lost the election to a man he had, two years earlier, defeated narrowly in a presidential by-election after the death of Levy Mwanawasa.
Mr Banda won by the thinnest of margins, garnering 718,359 votes which translated into 40.09 per cent of the total votes cast while Mr Sata got 683,150 votes or 38.13 per cent, according to Zambia electoral commission figures.
In the recent visit, Mr Banda spoke to a nation he knew was still recovering from the devastating effects of the 2007 post-election trauma. Kenya plunged into chaos in similar circumstances after Mr Raila Odinga, then an opposition candidate, rejected the results of the election and President Kibaki was hurriedly sworn in.
The firming of positions raised political temperatures and the supporters of the two camps engaged in violence that led to bloodshed and loss of lives of more than 1,000 Kenyans and displacement of hundreds of thousands of others.
Mr Banda, who was in the country to open an international conference on Kenya’s preparedness for a presidential run-off at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Nairobi, said his concession prevented similar violence in Zambia.
Mr Banda said he felt a bigger responsibility to uphold Zambia’s record of peace, stability and democracy even when, in doing so, he was required to walk away after a very closely fought election.
Saying on a light note that pangas (matchetes) in Africa are more lethal than guns, the former head of state, who first took over the copper-rich country as acting president after the death of Mr Mwanawasa in office, had to think fast and avert disaster.
As it were, Mr Banda confessed he was also under intense pressure from ministers, and party mandarins to hold on to the presidency, so that they could retain their jobs.
He says that as he sat at the State House with his wife, monitoring the election results as they trickled in, there were incessant calls on his mobile phone, with his power men in the party and government urging him not to concede defeat.
“They said they would lose their jobs if I left the presidency but I told them I was going to lose even a bigger job,” he said.
Mr Banda’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy had been in power for 20 years since the end of one-party rule under independence president Kenneth Kaunda.
Mr Banda’s decision to concede defeat, especially as the incumbent, is a rarity in Africa, where strong men cling on to power, leading to the suffering of innocent people.
Three years ago Cote d'Ivoire was plunged into a civil war after the incumbent president Laurent Gbagbo refused to concede defeat even after the election monitors said the opposition candidate Alassane Outtara had won 54 per cent of the vote.
Mr Gbagbo’s party and the election commission, whose decision seemed to have been skewed in the former president’s side, declared him winner. He was sworn in and the opposition candidate, who had been recognised as the winner by the international community, held a parallel inauguration. The resulting tension gave way to violence.
Although Mr Gbagbo was finally ousted from the presidency with the assistance of French forces, the pain and suffering endured by the people, and the dent to the country’s image, will remain part of the country’s history.
He was embarrassingly hounded out of a hiding place in the presidential palace and is today facing charges of crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.
In his address in Nairobi this week, Mr Banda said it was not all gloom in Africa. Out of 22 elections held in Africa in 2012, only Guinea-Bissau’s resulted in mayhem.
'Next time we try harder'
Kenya, despite her robust economy, world-class tourist sites and warm people, ranks among blotted African countries that have fought over elections.
The old man Banda went on to give his lessons to local politicians: on March 4, it is the responsibility of everyone to guard the public good. The public good is not an election victory, he said, but rather the strength of the democratic system itself.
He says there isn’t much dispute in case there is a landslide victory but in a closely contested election such as is likely in Kenya, there are risks that passions could run out of control and desperation may lead some groups to mobilise destructive violence in an effort to seize power.
His speech in conceding defeat marked Mr Banda out as a staunch democrat and a respecter of the wishes of the people as if in keeping with his soft-spoken nature.
“The people of Zambia have spoken and we must all listen,” he said. “Some will be happy with what they have heard, others will not. The time now is for maturity, for composure and for compassion. To the victors, I say this: You have the right to celebrate but do so with a magnanimous heart. Enjoy the hour but remember that a term of government is four years. Remember that the next election will judge you also.
“Treat those who you have vanquished with the respect and humility that you would expect in your own hour of defeat. I know that all Zambians will expect such behaviour and I hope it will be delivered. Speaking for myself and my party, we will accept the results. We are a democratic party and we know no other way.” He thanked his family, and members of his party, telling them:
“Next time we must try harder.”
Mr Banda said that if his party had misused government resources to campaign for the election – as suggested by EU election monitors – they had not done so “knowingly”.
The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairman Issack Hassan, the man with the task of announcing the winner after the election, said the advice from the former head of state had come at an appropriate time, when politicians were busy raising the stakes in the coming elections.
“I wish you could meet with all the presidential candidates and advise them on the need to concede defeat in an election, which is critical in guaranteeing a peaceful outcome,” Mr Hassan said.