To take a break from watching election returns Tuesday evening, I settled back to enjoy ninety minutes of non-political prime time viewing (mercifully sans political ads) by turning on ABC’s hit show, “Dancing with the Stars.” Imagine my surprise that in between Mario Lopez’s tango, Emmitt Smith’s cha-cha and Joey Lawrence’s rhumba, program host Tom Bergeron directed viewer’s attention to a special guest in the studio audience – Kenneth Kaunda, the former Stalinist president of Zambia.
After recovering from the initial shock at ABC’s promotion of the deposed brutal dictator (of course, ABC never bothered to mention his credentials other than identifying him as the former President of Zambia), I did some digging as to why a major television network would be fêting the well-fed, grinning Marxist on one of their highest rated programs. I was surprised to learn that in addition to Kaunda’s many accomplishments, such as his record as one of Africa’s longest serving autocrats, responsible for cratering Zambia’s economy, imposing one-party rule on his own nation, torturing and murdering innumerable political opponents in the process, and sponsoring murderous Marxist terrorists in neighboring countries, Kaunda is also an avid fan of ballroom dancing. Are any of us really amazed that this made sense to some ABC executive?
I also discovered that the former Zambian dictator, who was ousted from power in a democratic wave in 1991, is in the US to accept an award from the San Diego-based international charity, Project Concern International. Also on his agenda was having lunch with Sidney Poitier. It seems that in recent years that after Zambians rewrote their constitution in order to prevent Kaunda from ever running again as president and a failed coup attempt, he began an extreme makeover with the help of friends in America to transform his image from the terrorism-promoting kleptocrat to humanitarian and international AIDS activist.
Kaunda’s makeover received its biggest boost in 2001 when he was appointed to Boston University’s Lloyd G. Balfour African Presidents in Residence Program. At the time of his appointment in 2002, Peter Wood, an anthropology professor at Boston University, explained in the National Review (“Kaunda on Campus”) the politics behind his institution’s move: the program had been developed by President Clinton’s ambassador to Tanzania, Charles Stith, who envisioned a program in academia to embrace former Third World despots, much as American politicians are “put to pasture” after serving their time in Washington, D.C. And as Collin Levey explained in the Wall Street Journal, Boston U’s despot-in-residence program has many attractions for former kleptocrats who want to get away from it all after being evicted from power:
The president-in-residence gig is being advertised to its pool of recipients as a platform from which they can make speeches and continue to influence history (and history's perception of them). This has to be an attraction, so does Boston's well-developed financial sector – perfect for accessing Swiss bank accounts. Not to mention plenty of the spare time needed to regroup and organize a coup to get their old jobs back.
Ambassador Stith, too, sees strong selling points to his “despots-in-residence” program, telling the Wall Street Journal:
It sends a message to some of these other folks who are reluctant to step aside that there are a set of options, and when they do the right thing, good things can happen. (cited in Cullen Murphy’s December 2002 article in The Atlantic, “The Rogues of Academe”)
The effort by Kaunda’s friends in American academia and the political Left to rehabilitate his image is ambitious, considering the impressive résumé he compiled during his 27 years in power:
- Kaunda began his political career as a low-level Marxist thug in the early 1960s, where he gained notoriety for burning down a number of churches and schools, and quickly advanced to becoming the head of the United National Independence Party (UNIP), from which he assumed the presidency of Zambia in 1964 after Britain granted the country its independence.
- Despite the vibrant economy that Kaunda inherited from the British (at the time outranking Singapore’s booming economy), by nationalizing most of the profitable industries in the country as part of his program of “African Socialism,” which drove out almost all foreign investment, within a decade Zambia was the largest debtor nation in the world (the $4 billion that he secreted away in his Swiss bank accounts probably didn’t help, either).
- During his regime, Kaunda also racked up an impressive human rights abuse record. Torturing, jailing and killing political rivals and allies alike, he ensured that no opposition could develop against his regime. He ended free speech and free press, amended the constitution to impose one-party rule, and ruthlessly butchered anyone who questioned his authority. In the early days of his government, he loosed his paramilitary thugs on the Lumpa Church, an indigenous Christian movement that opposed Kaunda, killing 700 and imprisoning the surviving leaders, while using the crackdown as a pretext to declare a dictatorial state of national emergency that continued through all 27 years he was in power.
- Kaunda also bankrupted his country by spending extraordinary amounts on revolutionary movements in Africa. During his tenure, Zambia became the hub of Marxist terrorism and revolution in Southern Africa. The Kaunda-backed ZANU and ZAPU terrorists that operated out of Zambia were responsible for killing more than 30,000 in Zimbabwe, as well as countless more murdered by Zambian-based Marxist groups operating in Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, and South Africa.
- As a Marxist dictator, Kaunda developed close relations with the Soviet Union and China, modeling his regime along Stalinist lines, including the promotion of a cult of personality; but he also supported the non-aligned movement, becoming allies with Yugoslavian dictator Josef Tito and North Korea’s Kim Il-sung. Another friendship he struck up was with Saddam Hussein, with whom he shares a birthday. This tie began after Kaunda negotiated several oil deals with the Iraqi dictator – a friendship that has lasted up until recently. While in his residential post at Boston University, Kaunda traveled to Baghdad in 2002, as the US was on the eve of war with Iraq, to celebrate their mutual birthday with Saddam.
Some Zambians are astonished at Kaunda’s rehabilitation at home and abroad. Among them is Zambia Online editor Chanda Chisala, who expresses his disbelief at Kaunda’s extreme makeover in a recent article, “Rewriting the History of Kenneth Kaunda?”:
We all had to repeat slogans that contained his name – a name that was supposed to be as great on earth as God's name was great in heaven, according to one of the slogans. If this is not a typical psychopathological trait of a bona fide dictator, then I don't know what is. Unfortunately, our intellectual dishonesty is erasing and rewriting our history for the sake of an ephemeral popularity with the short-memoried masses that ride with the wind. And by erasing this history, we shall lose our lessons and thus encourage our current and future leaders to imitate Kaunda in his “great leadership”. Nothing can be more dangerous than that.
I’m sure it would be hard for Chisala to recognize the Kaunda whose regime he suffered under for decades with the glowing humanitarian portrait painted by Ravi Nessman of the Associated Press in 2001, announcing Kaunda’s new role as AIDS activist. And I’m sure that victims of Kaunda’s regime would marvel as former President Clinton hailed the recovering autocrat as a “Featured Attendee” and elder African statesman at the invitation-only Clinton Global Initiative conference held this past September in New York City.
But I’m sure that nothing could prepare the victims of oppression throughout the world if ABC decides to spin-off a new program next season, “Dancing with the Dictators”, where viewers will be treated to tin-pot despots, junta leaders and Middle Eastern emirs tripping the light fantastic with hot Latino and Russian dancers – perhaps hosted by Kenneth Kaunda and produced by world-renowned cinema-buff, Kim Jong-Il.
Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Robert Mugabe – get out your dancing shoes!
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