When former Zambian president Frederick Chiluba was taken to court, accused of embezzling millions of dollars from state coffers, the country, and to some extent the continent, held its breath.
The evidence seemed damning and the fact it was Chiluba’s successor, Levy Mwanawasa, who was behind the probe appeared to usher in a new confidence about the will to deal with corruption.
Six years later, however, following Mwanawasa’s death and the election of the current president, Rupiah Banda, Chiluba, in spite of separately having been found guilty in a London court of plundering $46-million, was acquitted back home.
For many Zambians, the case of Chiluba, who has since died, is a metaphor for efforts to combat corruption in Zambia.
“His acquittal was such an anti-climax and it made you think all the money that was spent on the trial was just for show,” said Reuben Lifuka, president of Transparency International Zambia (TIZ).
“Under the last president [Mwanawasa] we felt that things were improving because he seemed to be making an effort to tackle corruption, but that leadership has not continued under Rupiah Banda and in many ways we feel as if we’re going backwards.
“We need more decisive leadership and more pragmatic responses to the problem. The evidence is there in black and white in the auditor general’s reports, but nothing seems to happen.”
Leonard Chiti, director of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflections (JCTR), a Catholic think-tank and research centre, said: “The overriding perception is that the Anti-Corruption Commission is losing its power, or at least its will to pursue cases of corruption and we don’t feel it is impartial or independent enough from government.”
He said last year’s decision by parliament to remove from the Anti-Corruption Act the clause on “abuse of public office” (where government officials use their connections to win contracts and favour) had been a big setback for the country.
Although there have been several international reports pointing to less-than-transparent deals in Zambia’s mining sector, according to one leading Lusaka-based lawyer, “tenderpreneurship” and procurement fraud remain the country’s corruption of choice.
The lawyer, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the growth in foreign direct investment (FDI) was, in many ways, fuelling corruption, because more development, business opportunities and tenders were becoming available.
“Patronage is a huge problem in Zambia,” he said. “We have this very parasitic middle class which depends on favours and deals. This is part of why people don’t challenge what is going on, it’s not in their interest. The problem goes right to the top and there is a lack of political will to deal with it.”
Zambia’s aid money has also been a target, with countries including the Netherlands and Sweden holding back funds over fraud fears and the European Union halting some construction projects.
Last year the country was rocked by the decision by the United Nations’s Global Fund to freeze $300-million worth of HIV funding following allegations that money had been embezzled by senior health ministry officials. The Zambian government says it has repaid the money and has taken steps to improve its aid-management systems.
The Global Fund has restored funding, although the money will now be directed through the United Nations Development Programme and not given directly to the ministry of health.
But cynics say the probe was brushed under the carpet locally, with few being held to account for their actions and empty promises made to satisfy international donors.
Lifuka, from TIZ, told the Mail & Guardian that corruption was so widespread in Zambia that most people did not even complain about it anymore. “People we have surveyed say they don’t bother reporting the corruption they come across because they don’t have any faith in the police or Anti-Corruption Commission to take any action,” he said. “Society has become so permissive it is actually adding to the problem.”
The upcoming September 20 election has also not been free of claims of corruption.
Beyond the allegations that Banda’s ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy has been using government resources to fund its campaign, the main opposition Patriotic Front (PF) has been calling for a probe into the company contracted to print the ballot papers, amid allegations of kickbacks paid to members of the Electoral Commission of Zambia.
“In the long term, if we do not deal with corruption in Zambia then we are going to take away from all the economic gains we have made in recent years,” Lifuka said. “It’s all very well having this strong FDI, but where is the money going? It’s self-defeating, because the money is coming in but it is not getting to the people who need it most.”
Some analysts say the high level of dissatisfaction on the street with the extent of corruption might win the opposition a lead in the polls.
This article is part of a series on the run-up to the Zambian elections. Travel and accommodation for Mail & Guardian journalists and a photographer where supported by a grant from Freedom House, a Washington DC-based nongovernment organisation.
With a booming economy, a vibrant political scene and corruption on the boil, we examine Zambia in the run-up to their national elections in September. For news and multimedia on the elections view our special report.