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Reflections on the Loss of Rupiah Banda

The flags of Israel and Zambia. CREDIT: ZambiaInvest.com
CREDIT: ZambiaInvest.com

Last August, voters across Zambia went to the polls. As Washington and allied democracies held their collective breath, Zambians queued for hours under the African sun. When the dust settled, the opposition candidate for President, Hakainde Hichilema, won handily against the sitting incumbent. The peaceful transition of power which followed was a shining example for democracies across the world and, in particular, in Africa.

Zambia and Israel enjoy friendly relations. Diplomatic ties were renewed in 1991. In September 2015, noted Israeli diplomat Dore Gold presided over the opening of a Zambian embassy. Beyond cooperation in agriculture and green energy, bilateral relations can only grow.

This week marks eight months since the historic election of now President Hakainde Hichilema.

Unfortunately, the nation has been in mourning. This week Zambia’s fourth President, Rupiah Banda, was laid to rest. He was a regional leader and devoted “Pan-Africanist”. He was a statesman who represented his country as ambassador in Cairo, Washington and at the United Nations. The way he modernized Zambian diplomacy paved the way for relations with Israel.

The 2011 election in Zambia is perhaps a footnote in the history of African democracy, but one which deserves reflection by Israelis, the Jewish world and its Christian allies.

Running against President Banda was Saviour Chishimba. During his campaign, he very publicly flew to Israel. Upon disembarking, he donned a tallis (prayer shawl). As to be imagined, the border crossing at Ben Gurion Airport attracted significant attention for the 35-year-old candidate (who was also wearing a large cross).

The trip was more than a campaign stunt. Chishimba, a sitting Parliamentarian, engaged Zambians of different Christian denominations to understand and appreciate the Bible in a new light. He built a platform based on an intense love for the modern-day State of Israel. He pledged that if elected Hebrew would be offered in Zambian schools and Holocaust education would be mandatory. Indeed, his fringe political party that he founded had the Star of David and three doves as its logo.

At its peak over the last century, Zambia was home to over 1,000 Jews. Today, there may or may not be a minyan (a prayer quorum of 10 men). This being said, there is a museum to Jewish history in Livingstone and three cemeteries across the country that are actively maintained.

While President Hichilema did not take stances as unique as Chishimba, he is a man of devout faith. He has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to democracy and free market capitalism. It is quite likely that Zambian relations with Israel and the Jewish world will grow only stronger during his term.  Despite inheriting significant national debt and navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, his first eight months have been off to an impressive start. On numerous international trips, he has had high level meetings with senior government and private sector leaders that his predecessors did not.

Voters in Angola, Gambia and Kenya go to the polls this year. Zambia’s commitment to democratic ideals and creative campaigning both in 2011 and last year is an inspiration across Africa.

About the Author
Ari Mittleman works at the nexus of politics, policymaking and the press in Washington, DC. He has worked with American and international heads of state, elected officials, celebrities and global business and non-profit leaders. As a native Pennsylvanian actively involved in the Jewish community, the tragedy in Pittsburgh compelled him to author his first book, Paths of the Righteous by Gefen Publishing House. A new father, Ari lives in Pikesville, Maryland, with his wife and daughter.
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