LUSAKA, ZAMBIA, JULY 2 -- When rioters rampaged through this southern African capital last week to protest government-ordered increases in the price of food, one of the first targets of their rage was a little stone house in a part of the city known as Chilenje.

Dozens of rioters stormed it, prying open a brown steel fence, shattering windows and dishes and setting furniture and cars ablaze.

The building was not a grocery or department store prime for looting, but the former home of President Kenneth David Kaunda. Now a national monument, it is where Kaunda, the nation's first and only president, helped lead the struggle for Zambian independence from Britain in 1964.

Twenty-six years later, the smoldering ruins at 34 Bama Road testified to the sharp conflict and discontent many Zambians feel over the leadership of a man commonly known here as "K.K." and considered one of the founding fathers of modern Africa.

These are some of the darkest and most trying days in the long political life of Kaunda, 66, whose decision to more than double the price of cornmeal and other consumer commodities in an effort to restructure Zambia's woeful economy led to riots in which at least 23 people died. The crisis inspired an army lieutenant to take over Radio Zambia for several hours Saturday and announce -- inaccurately -- that Kaunda had been overthrown.

While the coup attempt was easily crushed by Zambian security forces, it triggered a stunning response in the streets. Upon hearing that the military had overthrown Kaunda, hundreds of people marched downtown and cheered.

"It was extraordinary, the feelings that poured out when people thought the old man had been overthrown," said a Western diplomat here. "I think it indicates how deeply the people want change of any kind."

Kaunda's immediate crisis stems chiefly from the new price of cornmeal, a staple food whose production and marketing are controlled by the government. Formerly $3.50 per 25-kilogram (55-pound) bag, which can last a family about two weeks, Zambians now must pay more than $7, a hefty price in a country where most people earn less than $300 a year.

The price increases are part of a series of reforms intended to liberalize the economy, cut government spending and attract new funding from international donors and lending institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

But in a larger sense, the turmoil in Zambia revolves around the nature of political leadership and one-party rule in a country long dominated by one man. From complaints about food costs the protests have spread to demands for immediate political change. "K.K. Must Go!" and "Away With One Party!" proclaim hand-scrawled signs in the capital.

Such sentiments could be considered heresy in view of Kaunda's traditional stature here. Along with Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana, Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Kaunda played a leading role in African independence movements in the 1950s and 1960s. In the nearly three decades since Zambia's independence, Kaunda has shaped southern African history by helping other nations attain independence.

"From the beginning, Kaunda has been committed to the liberation of Africa from the colonial past," said Claude Ake, a widely respected African political economist from Nigeria working as a research fellow at the Brookings Institute. "He has sustained this policy despite considerable danger to his own survival and the economic prosperity of his nation."

Kaunda -- a fierce advocate for the liberation of all white-ruled territories in the continent -- provided sanctuary for fighters struggling for majority rule in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and for the African National Congress of South Africa. So respected and revered is Kaunda on some parts of the continent that the first official trip ANC leader Nelson Mandela made outside South Africa upon his release from prison earlier this year was to State House, Kaunda's official residence in Lusaka.

But as Ake pointed out, there is another side to Kaunda: "He comes from an age when political authoritarianism and single-party rule were justified by African rulers on many grounds relating to stability."

That Kaunda effectively has no rival for power today and has overseen a political system in which opposition of any kind is discouraged "is a sign of weakness, not strength," he said.

"It has gotten to a point," Ake said, "where Kaunda appears to have outlived his usefulness. . . . We are living in an age where we are in danger of seeing South Africa transform itself and become truly democratic before any country in black Africa. That is tragic. . . Kaunda's old style must give way."

That style, so effective in Zambia's foreign affairs, helped create the economic crisis at home. A longtime believer in centralized planning, Kaunda until recently had pursued policies that resulted in state control of 90 percent of the economy, the highest per capita foreign debt -- $1,000 -- of any country in sub-Saharan Africa, and the most extensive urbanization of any nation on the continent. Nearly half of Zambia's 7.6 million people live in urban areas.

Zambia's urbanization -- and its accompanying lack of agricultural development -- can be partially explained by the nation's colonial history. Once known as Northern Rhodesia, the country was part of a British colonial federation made up of Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and Nyasaland, now Malawi. Each was exploited for its resources: farming in Southern Rhodesia, labor in Nyasaland and minerals in Northern Rhodesia.

Northern Rhodesia's colonialists met their agricultural needs by spending much of their mining profits on Southern Rhodesia's produce. When Kaunda and the United National Independence Party came to power in the mid-1960s, economic policy changed, but agriculture was still neglected in favor of urban development.

Kaunda declared Zambia a one-party state in 1972 and proceeded to gain almost complete control of that party. As the country stagnated politically, many top officials, unconcerned with accountability, were accused of corruption. One analyst here estimates that 80 percent of the country's annual output of diamonds and minerals is smuggled out of the country.

As the country stagnated economically in the wake of plummeting world prices for copper, Zambia stepped up its already heavy foreign borrowing to subsidize its economy.

Yet Kaunda, a gently charismatic man given to quoting the Bible and to outbursts of tears during public speeches, survived his nation's steady descent, primarily by following the political course most acceptable to the people. In 1986, when Zambians rioted in response to austerity measures encouraged by the IMF, Kaunda won public adulation by suspending payment on the country's foreign debt and rejecting the IMF, an organization seen by many in Africa as an agent of neo-colonialism.

But this week, Kaunda insisted that the recent IMF-style reforms this time are here to stay. He also promised to hold a referendum in the fall on whether to allow more political parties to compete for power.

Despite the hard times, many Zambians seem to share the contradictory sentiment expressed by a Lusaka teacher today: "I think we need new leadership badly, but I can't imagine what Zambia would be like without Kaunda."