A dubious succession

Published : Jan 19, 2002 00:00 IST

Levy Mwanawasa of Zambia's ruling party succeeds Frederick Chiluba to the Presidency in an election widely held to be unfair.

THE New Year brought the people of Zambia a political surprise. A majority of them had hoped to usher in the New Year with a clean political slate after the December 27 presidential elections. Instead, they found that the old order remained.

Zambians went to the polls during the Christmas holidays to elect a new President following outgoing President Frederick Chiluba's - reluctant - decision to step down after completing two five-year terms. Chiluba, against whom there are serious charges of corruption, wanted a political confidant of his to succeed him. The candidate chosen by the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) was Levy Mwanawasa, a former Vice-President of the country.

Chiluba had taken the disparate Opposition by surprise when he suddenly scheduled the elections for late December. The announcement was made only a month ahead of polling, giving the Opposition parties little time to get their act together. The Opposition also alleged that the elections were held during the holiday season in order to ensure that many Zambians did not cast their vote. Zambians living in the city traditionally visit their family homes in the countryside during the vacation. Besides, the inclement weather Zambia experiences during this time of the year makes campaigning an arduous task.

However, a voter-turnout of more than 80 per cent belied the predictions. The ruling party candidate had used government helicopters and four-wheel drive vehicles to campaign in the remote areas while the Opposition candidates found the going tough. While on the campaign trail, Mwanawasa defended his use of official transport as a legitimate perquisite for a candidate belonging to the ruling party. But despite the blatant government patronage and largesse, the ruling party's candidate could get only around 29 per cent of the votes polled. The votes from the countryside helped him edge past his nearest challenger, Anderson Mazoka, a wealthy businessman. Mazoka got over 27 per cent of the votes.

Mwanawasa's victory was to a large extent due to the presence of as many as 10 Opposition candidates in the field. If even one of the Opposition candidates had withdrawn, it would have been difficult for the ruling party candidate to win.

The counting of votes had proceeded amid high drama. The Opposition charged that ballot boxes from many rural areas were stuffed at the eleventh hour to help Mwanawasa. Many of the election monitors, foreigners as well as Zambian, corroborated the Opposition's allegations about vote rigging, especially towards the end of the counting, when the votes from the remote rural areas started coming in.

In the capital, Lusaka, people went on the rampage when the government rejected demands for a recount and a Supreme Court Judge allowed Mwanawasa to be sworn in. It was one of the most violent protests Lusaka has witnessed. A mob targeted the Supreme Court for attack but the security forces managed to bring the situation under control before any serious damage could be done. Mwanawasa was duly administered the oath of office as President on January 2 despite requests from the Opposition that the ceremony be delayed until the inquiry into the alleged electoral malpractices was completed.

The Opposition refused to recognise Mwanawasa as the country's constitutional head and called for more demonstrations. The authorities responded by closing down the National University in Lusaka for an indefinite period. It is obvious that there is considerable resentment among the people against Chiluba and the MMD. The fact that the Opposition parties got more than 70 per cent of the votes polled despite the dubious means adopted by the government, is seen as proof of the people's disenchantment with Chiluba's decade-long rule.

During Chiluba's two terms in office, Zambia was led further down the road of impoverishment. Chiluba, a former trade union leader, became an unabashed free marketeer after assuming power. Almost all of the country's precious assets, including the copper mines, have been privatised. Most public sector companies have closed down, leading to massive unemployment. The social sector was neglected. Zambia has one of the highest incidence of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) in the world.

Corruption in Zambia, even by sub-Saharan Africa's abysmal standards, reached new heights during Chiluba's reign. Former President Kenneth Kaunda has said that corruption was rampant "from the very highest to the very lowest" levels in the Chiluba government. Chiluba himself has figured in many financial scandals. A recent report in sections of the Zambian media said that for many years the former President had forgotten to collect his monthly salary; an official in the bank where the money was deposited was misappropriating it. "Transparency International", which brings out reports on governmental corruption worldwide, lists Zambia as among the ten worst offenders.

Chiluba was very friendly with people like Jonas Savimbi, the renegade leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). UNITA troops were given safe passage and sanctuary in Zambia until early last year, as they waged their bloody guerilla war against the Angolan government forces. A United Nations enquiry commission had concluded last year that Savimbi was very generous to African leaders who supported him and helped him in his diamond-smuggling and money-laundering activities. It was only after the Angolan government sent a very strong diplomatic signal that Chiluba adopted a relatively neutral posture. The explosions in Lusaka early last year were allegedly organised by the Angolans.

Chiluba also resorted to many manoeuvres in a desperate attempt to get the Zambian Constitution changed and get elected for a third time earlier last year. Chiluba had first won against the charismatic Kenneth Kaunda on the promise of enacting a constitutional provision limiting the President's term of office to two terms. Kaunda has since been debarred on flimsy legal grounds from contesting. The Chiluba government claimed that Zambia's founding father was actually born in neighbouring Malawi and hence was not eligible to be President. Chiluba got Kaunda arrested in the late 1990s in a bid to hound him out of politics.

Many of Chiluba's senior Cabinet colleagues resigned in protest against attempts to rewrite the Constitution. In the middle of last year, after acknowledging defeat in his attempt to win a third term, Chiluba sacked his entire Cabinet and appointed a new one packed with his cronies. Parliament was put in recess for six months. Among those appointed to the Cabinet was his former typist.

Following this, 65 members of the Zambian Parliament moved a motion to get Chiluba impeached for "gross misconduct". One reason why Chiluba wanted a hand-picked successor was to avoid criminal investigations into his conduct while in office. Chiluba continues to be the head of the ruling party. He has said that he plans to resign from the post soon but the people are sceptical about this happening. The powerful post of party president will enable Chiluba to exercise better control over a President who has been elected with the backing of only around a fourth of the electorate.

THE new President has an onerous task ahead of him. Not known to be one among the best and the brightest in Zambian politics, Mwanawasa had had to tell the electorate while on the campaign trail that he had not turned into a vegetable after a serious automobile accident he met with in the early 1990s. In his first speech after taking over as President, he urged his countrymen to put the elections behind them and "march forward". He blamed the Opposition for putting the country "in chaos". As of now, the Opposition is unwilling to grant the new President credibility and has dismissed him as an "illegitimate leader". They have vowed to keep the protests against electoral malpractices going.

Zambia was among the first African countries to make a peaceful transition of power through the ballot box. But ten years under the erratic Chiluba have constituted a chaotic period for Zambia. If the troubles continue, it will be bad for the entire region. Neighbouring Zimbabwe is already in political turmoil and has an election due soon. The West is more preoccupied with Zimbabwe than it is with Zambia. Chiluba was counted among the pro-Western leaders in the region. Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, on the other hand, is being painted in evil colours by the Western media and governments.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment