Zambia’s first president and champion of African independence Kenneth Kaunda has died at the age of 97, the country’s president Edgar Lungu announced on Facebook Thursday evening.

Zambia will have 21 days of mourning, said Lungu.

Kaunda’s son, Kamarange Kaunda, also gave the news of the statesman’s death on Facebook Thursday.

“I am sad to inform we have lost Mzee,” Kaunda’s son wrote, using a Swahili term of respect for an elder. “Let’s pray for him.”

Kaunda had been admitted to the hospital on Monday and officials later said he was being treated for pneumonia.

The southern African country is currently battling a surge in COVID-19 cases and the country’s founding president was admitted to Maina Soko Medical Center, a military hospital which is a center for treating the disease in the capital, Lusaka.

At the time Kaunda asked for “all Zambians and the international community to pray for him as the medical team is doing everything possible to ensure that he recovers,” according to the statement issued by Kaunda’s administrative assistant Rodrick Ngolo.

Kaunda was a schoolteacher who became a fiery African nationalist. Although he eventually ruled over a one-party state and became authoritarian, Kaunda agreed to return Zambia to multi-party politics and peacefully stepped down from power when he lost elections in 1991. He was a leader of the campaign that ended British colonial rule and he became Zambia’s first democratically elected president in 1964.

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During his rule, Kaunda made Zambia a center for anti-colonial groups fighting to end white minority rule in southern African countries including Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Kaunda allowed the guerilla organizations to maintain military bases, training camps, refugee centers and administrative offices

In Zambia’s heady first years of independence, Kaunda rapidly expanded the country’s education system, establishing primary schools in urban and rural areas and providing all students with books and meals. His government established a university and medical school. Kaunda also expanded Zambia’s health system to serve the Black majority.

Genial and persuasive, Kaunda gained respect as a negotiator pressing the case for African nationalism with Western leaders.

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