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Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba dies at 68

Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s first democratically elected president who became increasingly autocratic during his decade in office, died Saturday. He was 68.

Chiluba, president from November, 1991 to January, 2002, suffered from heart problems.

The son of a copper miner and former trade union leader, Chiluba took office after 27 years of one-party rule by Kenneth Kaunda.

Hailed as “the black Moses” and “the liberator” by his supporters, vowed to introduce political freedoms and replace Kaunda’s debt-ridden, centrally planned economy with a free market.

At first, Chiluba expanded civil and political rights and Zambia was seen as a model of democracy on a troubled continent. But eventually he slipped into Kaunda’s own methods of suppressing opposition and was dogged by corruption allegations into his retirement.

He declared a state of emergency in 1997 after a failed coup and subsequently detained Kaunda — whom he accused of being behind the plot — under house arrest. Chiluba was unapologetic after Kaunda was shot and wounded by government forces during demonstrations the same year and escaped an assassination attempt in 1999.

Chiluba’s antipathy toward Zambia’s founding father stemmed from being imprisoned without charges in 1981 for allegedly organising strikes to weaken the government. In prison, Chiluba became a born-again Christian and peppered his speeches with biblical references.

Chiluba barred the charismatic Kaunda from running again for president in 1996 by saying that his Malawian origins disqualified him. The opposition boycotted the poll as Chiluba’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy was elected for a second term.

He left office only reluctantly. After repeated promises to retire when his term ended, he flirted with changing the Constitution to enable a run for a third five-year term. The move angered many Zambians who cherished their relatively new democracy and he was forced to back down.

In his bid to free up copper-rich Zambia’s economy, Chiluba slashed import duties and abolished currency controls. He sold state owned enterprises to private buyers, many of them from Europe or South Africa.

But the measures failed to improve the lot of the vast majority of Zambia’s 13-million people, who remained mired in abject poverty.

The extent of the corruption became apparent after Chiluba left office and handed over to his hand-picked successor Levy Mwanawasa.

In 2009, a magistrate acquitted Chiluba of corruption charges after a six-year trial. Chiluba had been accused of diverting nearly $500 000 of state money for his own use. The judge ruled that the funds could not be traced to government coffers.

Several people close to Chiluba — including his wife — were convicted earlier on related charges. Chiluba had claimed to be the victim of a political witch hunt backed by Britain, Zambia’s former colonial ruler.

In 2007 in a London High Court civil case, a judge ruled that Chiluba was guilty of stealing $46-million from Zambian state coffers during his years in office. Zambian prosecutors had pursued the case in British courts because some of the money was allegedly laundered through British banks.

The British judge ordered Chiluba to pay back 85% of the money, and in his ruling painted a picture of a decadent ruler who spent taxpayer funds on expensive suits and shoes while most Zambians lived in poverty. Chiluba appealed and the High Court decision had to be registered in Zambia, a lengthy process, before any enforcement. – Sapa-AP

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