ZAMBIA’s first president Kenneth Kaunda turns 91 on Tuesday April 28, cementing his place in an elite club of African presidents—both past and serving—who are nonagenarians.
Kaunda’s intellect remains sharp, supporting a physically hectic schedule of both local and international travel. His sprint to the podium during Nelson Mandela’s funeral in 2013 continues to warm the heart of many who see it, although lately he has slowed down by creeping ill health.
Kaunda ruled the southern African country between 1964 and 1991, and remains the only republican leader of the 1960s generation who has lived to see his country turn 50.
Kaunda told M&G Africa in a past interview that the secret to his long life was his love for God, and for his neighbour. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
He would have been joined in that exclusive class by The Gambia’s Sir Dawda Jawara, but a referendum delayed the West African country’s ascension to a republican state to 1970, five years after independence.
Sir Dawda, a former veterinarian doctor who once famously said “there’s not a cow in the Gambia that doesn’t know me personally,” also turns 91 next month.
He won six successive elections from 1966 before he was deposed in a coup in 1994 by Yahya Jammeh. He was given asylum in Senegal and then in London, before Jammeh granted him an amnesty in 2001, on condition that he does not participate in national politics.
Jammeh regularly gives him birthday gifts including cash and personalised letters of joy and love, in addition to cake and fruit.
Kenya’s second president Daniel arap Moi has had fewer qualms about dabbling in politics, but is shorn of much influence, a noticeable turnabout for a man who for 24 years bestrode the country’s political landscape like a colossus.
Few have many kind words for the managerial skills of the ex-president who turned 90 last September, some 12 years after he stepped down, accusing him of failing to grow the economy, while allowing corruption to flourish, despite his legendary generosity.
Kenya ex-president Moi remains active. (Photo/AFP)
The active Moi maintains a health lifestyle in his retirement, eating boiled green maize and porridge for breakfast, and avoiding alcohol.
He is however said to enjoy fast driving, deriving great thrill from his driver flooring the accelerator.
Nigeria’s Shehu Shagari in February also marked his 90th birthday. He served as president between 1979 and 1983, following the handover of power by the military government of Olusegun Obasanjo, and is remembered for his great modesty in a country where leaders rarely exhibit that trait.
His administration was however marred by allegations of graft, but it was his handling of the economy that finally pushed him out, overthrown by general Muhammadu Buhari, the man who will again lead the populous country from May 29, this time having come to office constitutionally in a democratic election in March.
Of this elderly club, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe is the only serving leader. He marked his 91st birthday in February, and has like Kaunda kept up a very active schedule.
At an interview with the state broadcaster before the lavish party, he said the secret to his long life was not having a “full tummy”.
“I eat well, not filling my stomach, eating foodstuffs that I believe sustain one most,” he said.
“You must eat well, and really not go for food because its attractive and feed yourself until your tummy is full.”
He has endured international criticism of disastrous economic decisions, in addition to an authoritarian streak that brooks little dissent.
He however remains one of the foremost African leaders, currently heading both the African Union (AU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Few foresee him leaving office during his lifetime.
Notably, all of the above leaders have come from countries that were colonised by Britain, with Francophone and Lusophone African unrepresented.
Malawi’s Hastings Kamuzu Banda, who died at a recorded age of 99, and South Africa’s Mandela who bowed out at the age of 95, also led countries colonised by the British.
Among the few Francophone leaders who registered in this longevity club was Senegal’s Leopold Sedar Senghor, who died aged 95. He was the first of that independence generation leaders to resign of his own free will.