Obituary: Frederick Chiluba

Frederick Chiluba
Image caption Frederick Chiluba, Zambia's first elected President

Frederick Chiluba came to power as Zambia's second president by defeating the once-revered Kenneth Kaunda in the first contested elections in the country for more than 20 years.

Democracy flourished during his 10-year rule, but the dapper and diminutive politician ended his career under a shadow of corruption.

He was the son of a copper miner, and was born in Kitwe, in what was then the British Protectorate of Northern Rhodesia.

Working as a clerk as a young man, he joined a building and engineering workers union, and visited East Germany and the Soviet Union, but later became disenchanted with Communist ideology. He rose through the union ranks to become chairman in 1971, and became increasingly involved in politics in Zambia.

He had been a supporter of Mr Kaunda through independence in 1964, but became disillusioned with one-party rule, and in 1980 threatened to call a strike against the regime.

Widespread support

After months of turmoil, President Kaunda ordered the arrest of Mr Chiluba and three other union leaders, and they were held for three months, until a court ruled that their imprisonment was unlawful.

On his release, Mr Chiluba began to attract increasing support, and, in 1990, formed the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, MMD, to oppose Mr Kaunda's authoritarian rule.

With a bankrupt economy - foreign debt stood at more than $6.4bn (£4bn) - high unemployment and 100% inflation, he attracted widespread backing for his demands for economic reform and improved human rights.

Image caption Kenneth Kaunda relinquished power in 1991

Only five feet tall, he was nevertheless an impressive figure who, as a born-again Christian, brought the passion of the pulpit to his oratory.

President Kaunda finally bowed to demands for free elections which were held in November 1991 and closely assessed by 2,000 local and foreign monitors, including a Commonwealth team and one led by US ex-President Jimmy Carter.

The poll was declared free and fair, and Mr Chiluba and his party were swept to power with more than 80% of the vote.

Mr Kaunda stepped down in what was regarded as the most democratic change of government ever seen in Africa.

Mr Chiluba inherited enormous economic problems, aggravated by the worst drought in the country for 50 years. He set about trying to persuade the West to come to his aid in setting up a free-market economy, and promised a big sell-off of state-run enterprises.

But Zambian hopes for a bright future gradually turned to disillusionment as Mr Chiluba began to abandon egalitarian principles and processes.

Tarnished image

Corruption became widespread at all levels and crime increased. The sell-off of the state copper mines was botched and many of the mines company's assets vanished into thin air.

In the meantime, the free-market economy failed to deliver and three-quarters of Zambia's population continued to live in poverty.

What's more, Frederick Chiluba's personal image suffered badly when he appeared to be more interested in himself than his country.

Image caption Mwanawasa: Chiluba's successor brought charges of corruption against him

In 1996, he prevented former President Kaunda from standing against him in the presidential elections by changing the constitution to preclude candidates with parents born outside Zambia. Mr Kaunda's father was from what is now Malawi.

His hounding of Kaunda was not popular either at home or among the international community.

In 1997, he imprisoned the former leader for allegedly conspiring in a coup plot against him. Mr Chiluba released him only after pressure from Africa's elder statesmen, Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere.

He also tried to strip Mr Kaunda of his citizenship.

Then Mr Chiluba tried to amend the constitution again to enable him to run for a third term and allegedly spent a lot of money bribing people to support his cause. Nevertheless, he failed and was forced to step down in 2002.

Corruption Charges

The following year, his hand-picked successor, Levy Mwanawasa, brought more than 100 charges of corruption against Frederick Chiluba including the theft of $35m of public funds allegedly funnelled into private bank accounts in London.

His wife Regina also faced charges of theft. Mr Chiluba denied all charges, saying they were politically motivated. And he was acquitted after a six-year trial.

Image caption Corruption became widespread under Chiluba

However in 2007 he was found guilty of stealing $46m (£23m) of public money by a UK court.

To his credit, under Frederick Chiluba, freedom of speech in Zambia flourished and its media became as lively as anywhere in Africa.

Though he tried to extend his tenure in power, he did not resort to state-controlled oppression to get his way.

Internationally, he helped broker a peace agreement in neighbouring civil war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.

Perhaps Frederick Chiluba's greatest legacy is that he established a lasting principle of democracy in Zambian politics.

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