June 21, 2011

Frederick Chiluba dies at 68

Frederick Chiluba, 68, a trade union leader who became the first elected president of multiparty Zambia, died June 18 in the capital city of Lusaka. He had a heart ailment. Mr. Chiluba’s ascendancy marked a new era of politics in Zambia, where Kenneth Kaunda had reigned since the sub-saharan country’s independence in 1964.
During the 1980s, Mr. Chiluba emerged as Zambia’s most forceful dissident voice. Then president Kaunda ordered in 1981 that Mr. Chiluba be jailed on charges that he was scheming to overthrow the government. Rallying behind a movement Mr. Chiluba helped initiate, the international community pressured Kaunda to hold Zambia’s first multiparty elections in 1991. A copper miner’s son and one-time bus conductor, Mr. Chiluba ran his campaign by openly comparing himself to Lech Walesa, the Polish Solidarity leader. Mr. Chiluba won more than 75 percent of the vote. The election was overseen by former President Jimmy Carter, which the American statesman called free and fair. “The stream of democracy, dammed up for 27 years, is finally free to run its course as a mighty African river,” Mr. Chiluba said after taking his oath of office. “The era of dictator, hypocrisy and lies is over.”

Promising to bring Zambia free-market reforms, Mr. Chiluba privatized the country’s copper mines and slashed currency controls. He sold hundreds of state-run enterprises to investors and ended food subsidies. Inflation fell to the lowest point in two decades. In 1996, an election year, the president orchestrated a constitutional amendment calling for all candidates to have strictly Zambian ancestry. The law effectively prohibited Kaunda’s return to politics because his parents were originally from nearby Malawi. As Mr. Chiluba’s grip on the presidency tightened, he began to threaten violence and imprison members of opposition groups. He had Kaunda jailed at a maximum security prison on charges that he was stoking revolutionary fervor and was involved in a coup plot. The charges against Kaunda were later dropped. Mr. Chiluba cycled through vice presidents and cabinet members he suspected of maneuvering to take his power. Parliament members resigned by the dozen, citing rampant corruption and economic mismanagement. Although Mr. Chiluba flirted with changing the constitution again to run for a third term, he left the Zambian presidency in 2001 much the way he found it: in shambles.

During his decade in office, Mr. Chiluba’s reforms failed to provide long-term stability to the economy. The unemployment rate hovered at 20 percent. More than 80 percent of the country’s 12 million residents lived below the poverty line and earned less than a dollar a day. espite his country’s vast destitution, Mr. Chiluba reportedly kept official Zambian bank accounts overseas for his personal use. A 2007 civil case claiming Mr. Chiluba had laundered money into a London account was brought by Zambian authorities to a British court. Zambian lawyers said that although Mr. Chiluba’s presidential salary was $10,000 a year, he was able to spend $500,000 at a single boutique in Geneva. Upon hearing the evidence, Justice Peter Smith said Mr. Chiluba had “plundered” $46 million while in office. Mr. Chiluba called the British court’s ruling invalid and maintained the money was provided by anonymous “well-wishers” and political supporters. In 2009, Mr. Chiluba was acquitted of corruption charges in a Zambian court that ruled the former president’s assets could not be proven to have originated from state coffers. Mr. Chiluba, who said he was a Christian, offered thanks to God after his acquittal. “For eight long years the devil has tried to put the stigma of a thief on me,” Mr. Chiluba said. “The Lord has dealt with that.”

Frederick Jacob Titus Chiluba was born April 30, 1943, in Kitwe, in what was then the British protectorate of Northern Rhodesia. In his youth, he was a bookkeeper on a sisal plantation in neighboring Tanzania. He later worked for a Swedish mining-equipment company in Zambia and became involved with a trade union. He rose through the union ranks and was elected in 1974 as chairman of the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions, a group that represented 300,000 members. Mr. Chiluba was reportedly married three times. Besides his wife, Regina Mwanza, survivors include at least 10 children. Mr. Chiluba was succeeded by his one-time vice president, Levy Mwanawasa, who died in 2008 after a stroke. Mwanawasa stripped Mr. Chiluba of his immunity and led the campaign to investigate the former leader’s alleged practices of corruption. “The presidency in Africa is not cheap,” Mr. Chiluba said in his own defense. “People die to secure the presidency. But here was Mr. Mwanawasa, who received it on a silver platter from my hands. He stabbed me in the back badly. I still bleed.” (Lusaka Times/Sadocc/rts)

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