REPORTING FROM JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA -- Zambian President Rupiah Banda, faced with electoral defeat Friday, did something unusual. He ceded power.
Banda's concession speech, a rare and conciliatory move for a recent African leader, marked the fourth time power has changed hands in Zambia since independence in 1964, a significant step for democracy in the nation.
Banda attended the swearing-in ceremony for his rival, Michael Sata, who was declared the winner by the electoral commission earlier in the day. Sata is a nationalist figure known as King Cobra for his sharp criticism of China, which has extensive investments in Zambia's copper mines.
"The people of Zambia have spoken and we must all listen," said an emotional Banda, 74, wiping away tears. "We never rigged, we never cheated, we never knowingly abused state funds. We simply did what we thought was best for Zambia."
Sata, 74, won the election with 43% of the vote to Banda's 36%. Banda was elected president in 2008.
It was Sata's fourth run for the presidency. Seven districts remained uncounted from Tuesday's presidential and parliamentary elections, but the electoral commission announced that his lead was insurmountable.
International observers said the elections were relatively smooth and competitive, but accused Banda's party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, of abusing state resources and its dominance of state media coverage.
Violence and rioting broke out several times after Tuesday's vote, with Sata supporters angry that the results weren't coming faster. The media were banned from reporting anything but official election results after the electoral commission's website was hacked by Sata supporters.
Sata, a former policeman and railway porter, was a member of the MMD, but formed his own Patriotic Front party in 2001. He headed the ministries for health, local government and labor under previous governments.
Banda campaigned on the country's booming economy and 7.6% growth. But with two-thirds of the population surviving on less than $2 a day, Sata exploited anger among the young urban poor, who reaped few benefits from the country's copper wealth.
He vowed to crack down on corruption and promised to reinstate a windfall tax on the mining industry, although he backed away from the latter vow in an interview with Reuters news service during the final days of the campaign.
Sata, famous for his vitriolic anti-China stance in previous elections, also moderated his rhetoric during the campaign. On Friday, he said all foreign investors were welcome, provided they stuck to Zambia's labor laws. China has been criticized over working conditions in mines.
For his part, Banda urged Zambians to put the election behind them.
"Now is not the time for violence and retribution," he said. "Now is the time to unite and build tomorrow's Zambia together."
Elections across Africa in recent years have seen incumbents refuse to step down and opposition supporters riot. Dominant ruling parties and fractured oppositions mean that power rarely changes hands.
After disputed elections in Kenya in 2007 and Zimbabwe in 2008, governments of national unity, comprising the ruling party and opposition, eventually were set up. About 1,500 people died in Kenya's postelection violence. In Madagascar an opposition leader seized power in a military coup in 2009.
In Nigeria this year, despite elections seen as relatively clean, thousands of opposition supporters in the mainly Muslim north rioted, dragging ruling party figures from their houses and killing them.
Guinea, a West African country with a history of coups, held a relatively fair election in November, and opposition leader Alpha Conde took power, only to see a coup attempted in July, when Conde's residence was attacked.
-- Robyn Dixon
Photo: Zambia's new president, Michael Sata, right, is congratulated by former President Rupiah Banda during a swearing-in ceremony in Lusaka on Sept. 23, 2011. Credit: Thomas Nsama /AFP/Getty