Frederick Chiluba: Politician who promised a bright future for Zambia but became mired in corruption

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Frederick Chiluba stunned Africa by winning the presidency of Zambia with a landslide victory in the country's first free elections. But though he was initially hailed as a saviour for ending one-party rule, his time in office became blighted by corruption, political suppression and revelations of wild extravagance. In the end, his many critics attributed his fall to the usual sins of the powerful: greed, vanity and pride.

In the 1991 election, amid strikes, economic decline and social unrest, Chiluba unexpectedly beat Zambia's founding president Kenneth Kaunda, who had been in office since 1964. The former trade union leader known as "Zambia's Lech Walesa" was seen as the man to take copper-rich Zambia forward. "The Zambia we inherit is destitute, ravaged by the excesses, ineptitude and straight corruption of a party and a people who have been in power for too long," he said in his first presidential address . "Now the coffers are empty. The people are poor. The misery endless."

Optimism was short-lived. Chiluba presided over the ill-managed privatisation of the copper mines and other state-owned companies and, guided by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, the introduction of a free-market economy while the government was still dependent on foreign aid. There was the whiff of corruption: much of the sale proceeds were unaccounted for. His mismanagement left three-quarters of the population worse off, living on less than a dollar a day, and many more jobless.

Frederick Jacob Titus Chiluba was born in 1943 in the city of Kitwe, then in Northern Rhodesia. His father, who died when he was a child, was a miner in the copper belt, which was of key importance to Zambia's economy. He was brought up by his grandmother, his education cut short when he was expelled from school for political activities. He worked as a sisal cutter in Tanzania and a bus driver before becoming a city councillor. While working for Atlas Copco, a Swedish mining equipment company, he became a union leader and studied briefly in East Germany and the Soviet Union. He also earned a master's degree in political science via a correspondence course at Warwick University.

Chiluba rose quickly through the ranks of the labour movement and in 1974 became the chairman of the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions. In 1981, Kaunda jailed Chiluba and other labour leaders without charges after they had instigated wildcat strikes. A judge ruled the detentions unconstitutional and after three months behind bars Chiluba emerged emboldened and a born-again Christian, often using biblical references in his speeches. He forged a loose coalition of unions, civic groups, churches and disillusioned former government loyalists to form the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, backed by the US with the promise that aid would be resumed if Kaunda was defeated at the polls. When Kaunda finally agreed to multi-party elections, Chiluba, a personable man and a good orator, stunned Africa by winning the presidency in 1991 with 76 per cent of the vote.

The diminutive Chiluba gained a reputation for the kind of authoritarian tendencies he had ridiculed in Kaunda: he dismissed colleagues, jailed journalists, bought off enemies and rounded up rivals, appearing to regard himself as irreplaceable. In 1996 he banned Kaunda from running against him and tried to have him deported to Malawi. After serving the two terms in office allowed by the constitution, he tried to rewrite the law again. However, civic groups, churches and even his own party faithful rallied, and thousands demonstrated.

He hand-picked his vice-president, Levy Mwanawasa, to succeed him, presuming that dirty secrets would remain concealed. Mwanawasa soon turned on him, however, stripping him of his immunity so that he could be prosecuted on charges of stealing public funds. Before that, in 2007, Zambia's attorney general sued Chiluba in a civil action in London for laundering millions of dollars in Britain while in office. Judge Peter Smith ruled in the High Court that the former President owed Zambia $57m, referring to a secret intelligence agency bank account in London "set up primarily to steal government money."

It was revealed during the case that during his decade in office, Chiluba spent more than $500,000 in a single shop, Boutique Basile, in Geneva. The shop's owner testified that payment sometimes arrived in suitcases stuffed with cash. Zambia's anti-corruption task force seized trunks stuffed with designer suits, monogrammed shirts, silk ties, pyjamas and dressing gowns as well as more than 100 pairs of size 6 shoes, each with raised heels.

Despite the London judgment, none of Chiluba's assets were seized. And at home in 2009 he was cleared of all corruption charges after a judge ruled that the prosecution had failed to show that his assets had come from state coffers.

Frederick Jacob Titus Chiluba, politician: born Kitwe, Northern Rhodesia 30 April 1943; married 1968 Vera Tembo (divorced 2001; nine children), 2002 Regina Mwanza (two children); died Lusaka, Zambia 18 June 2011.