Former Zambian president Frederick Chiluba has died. Photo: Reuters
Former Zambian president Frederick Chiluba has died. Photo: Reuters

Zambia’s ex-president Chiluba dies

By Obert Simwanza Time of article published Jun 18, 2011

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Zambia's former president Frederick Chiluba, who has died at the age of 68, was a one-time democracy hero whose reputation was left in tatters by his life of luxury once in office.

When he ended the 27-year rule of Zambia's founding president Kennneth Kaunda in 1991, Chiluba was hailed for saving the country from one-party rule.

But after unsuccessfully trying to stay in power beyond his scheduled 10-year term, and as evidence of his personal excesses mounted, he was derided as a little more than a common thief and convicted by a court in London of pocketing 46 million dollars of state funds.

Suffering from acute heart and kidney complications, Chiluba was a virtual prisoner in his final years, confined to his residence after authorities confiscated his passport to prevent him from evading justice.

His final reputation marked a dramatic fall from grace for a man who attracted the adulation of tens of thousands of supporters when he took on Kaunda who had ruled largely unopposed since independence in 1964.

Chiluba became president of the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, a coalition of unions, civic and church groups as well as former Kaunda loyalists who had grown disillusioned with his autocratic style.

Initially welcomed by the West who had struggled to get on with the leftist Kaunda, he won praise for his emphasis on democracy, human rights and governmental transparency.

This diminutive African leader Ä he was just 1.5 metres (just under five feet) tall Ä oversaw the sale of more than 250 state companies to private firms.

But while the sell-offs were originally seen as part of a programme of reforms, much of the sale price went unaccounted for while hundreds of thousands were left out of work.

The ex-leader spent hundreds of thousands of dollars of public funds in buying tailor-made exotic suits, high-heeled shoes and monogrammed shirts when millions of his people lived on less than a dollar a day.

Chiluba soon also garnered a reputation for the kind of authoritarian tendencies which had been derided in Kaunda: sacking colleagues, jailing outspoken journalists, buing off opponents and rounding up rivals.

“I am a political engineer,” he would declare after ousting opponents.

In 1997, he survived a military coup and then used the incident to detain several of his opponents, including Kaunda.

After serving the constitutionally allowed two terms in office, Chiluba attempted to amend the constitution to run for a third term but he met vigorous resistance, with tens of thousands protesting in the streets.

Sensing a humiliating defeat, he drew up a hasty exit strategy which saw him hurriedly pluck a successor, Levy Mwanawasa, from political obscurity.

Mwanawasa, a former mild-mannered vice-president who had returned to a career as an attorney, turned against his mentor and persuaded parliament to strip him of his immunity so he could be prosecuted for grand graft.

Despite the conviction in London, Zambian prosecutors failed to convict him of corruption in Zambian courts, or even to convince the judiciary to apply the British judgement locally so his assets could be seized.

In many ways, Chiluba was an enigma and much of his background remained in dispute.

His exact date of birth was never confirmed, but he is believed to have been born in 1942 in what is now Zambia's northern neighbour, the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In his teenage years, Chiluba worked as a bus conductor and sisal cutter in neighbouring Tanzania before making his way to the newly-independent Zambia where he first came to prominence as chairman of the once powerful Zambia Congress of Trade Unions where he was at the helm for 17 years.

He is not know to have had any formal education.

However, when he was president, he spent time studying by correspondence and obtained a masters degree in political science from University of Warwick and was later conferred an honorary doctorate by the University of Malawi.

Chiluba was initially married to Vera Tembo for 33 years, with whom he had nine children before he divorced and married Regina, a former women's leader in the MMD. -


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