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Levy Mwanawasa: President of Zambia who fought against corruption and was a fierce and vocal critic of Robert Mugabe

Levy Mwanawasa, President of Zambia since 2002, was part of a new generation of African leaders whose formative years were not spent fighting for liberation. Zambia won independence from Britain in 1964 when Mwanawasa was just 15, and his early career was instead taken up with the battle against corruption.

It was this background that led Mwanawasa to become such a fierce critic of the Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. Where Thabo Mbeki of South Africa and José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola saw a fellow liberation leader under attack from the West, Mwanawasa saw an ailing demagogue whose freefalling economy was having a devastating effect on the region.

In 2007, alarmed at the number of refugees pouring across the border into Zambia, Mwanawasa likened Zimbabwe to the "sinking Titanic whose passengers are jumping out". He used his position as chairman of the regional political body, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to criticise Zimbabwe's flawed presidential elections in 2008.

At the African Union summit in June at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, which followed Mugabe's controversial re-election, Mwanawasa had been expected to urge his fellow leaders to condemn the poll. But on the day before the summit began, Mwanawasa suffered a serious stroke, and was flown to a hospital in Paris. The African heads of state failed to speak out publicly, and the recent attempt by Mbeki to broker a power-sharing settlement between Mugabe and his rival Morgan Tsvangirai has now collapsed. Botswana followed Mwanawasa's lead this month by boycotting a meeting of regional leaders in protest at Mugabe's presence.

Levy Mwanawasa was born in 1948, in Mufulira, a town in the northern copperbelt of what was then Northern Rhodesia. He studied law at the University of Zambia and by the age of 30 had established his own law firm, Mwanawasa and Company. He quickly carved out a reputation for taking on difficult cases, particularly those which challenged the government. It wasn't easy. Independence had not brought democracy to Zambia. Kenneth Kaunda, the country's first president, resisted all attempts to hold multi-party elections, and took a dim view of those who threatened his rule.

In 1989 Mwanawasa took on his most high-profile, and politically dangerous, case. A team of politicians and military officers, including the former vice-president Lt-Gen Christian Tembo, were charged with attempting to overthrown Kaunda.

Mwanawasa's successful defence catapulted him into a position of national prominence. The following year, with Kaunda finally giving in to local and international pressure to hold multi-party elections, Mwanawasa was touted as a possible presidential candidate. He declined, citing his age, 41, and relative inexperience.

While Mwanawasa had won plaudits during the 1980s he had also gained some powerful enemies. When he was involved in a serious car crash in 1991, some suggested that he may have been the victim of a political plot, allegations which were never substantiated. The incident left Mwanawasa with serious injuries – he spent three months recovering in a Johannesburg hospital.

The man eventually chosen by the opposition Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) party to stand for the presidency was Frederick Chiluba, a flamboyant and smartly dressed trade unionist. Chiluba won the 1991 election and installed Mwanawasa as his vice-president. But it wasn't long before Mwanawasa's strong anti-corruption credentials collided with the realities of the new Zambian government. He lasted just three years as vice-president, resigning after accusing some of his colleagues of corruption.

His political ambitions remained undimmed though, and he challenged Chiluba for the leadership of the MMD in 1996. His failed attempt established Mwanawasa as the favourite to take over once Chiluba reached his constitutional limit of two presidential terms.

However, Mwanawasa's election as president in 2001 was far from unanimous. Standing against 10 other candidates, he won 29 per cent of the vote, just two points more than his closest opponent. Moreover, national and international observers cited serious irregularities in the election process, somewhat undermining Mwanawasa's record for integrity.

Nevertheless, in office Mwanawasa won support from the West for his anti-corruption drive and his economic reforms. His biggest victim was his predecessor and one-time mentor, Chiluba. The former president was accused of corruption and charges were eventually brought against him in the High Court in London in July 2007.

Kick-starting the economy proved much harder. At independence, Zambia's copper wealth had given it the potential to become one of Africa's richest countries. It never happened – the Zambia that Mwanawasa took over in January 2002 was instead one of the continent's poorest. But by the time he ran for re-election in 2006 annual growth was above five per cent. While the macro-economic figures looked impressive, the majority of Zambia's 11.5 million people still lived in poverty.

There were also growing concerns about the President's health. Mwanawasa's slurred speech, a result of the 1991 car crash, had long been whispered about. In 2006, he suffered a minor stroke, months before he was due to stand for re-election. He recovered, but his opponents claimed he was not fit enough to run the country.

Mwanawasa's main challenger in the 2006 election, Michael Sata, ran a populist campaign, arguing that too few Zambians were benefiting from Mwanawasa's eceonomic policies. Sata had been ahead in the opinion polls, but Mwanawasa won again. When Sata claimed the poll had been rigged Mwanawasa threatened to charge him with treason.

Although he was a favourite in the West for his stand against corruption and his attempts to reform the economy, Mwanawasa could also be outspoken when he felt rich countries were letting Zambia down.

At the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles, 18 countries, including Zambia, were offered debt relief. They were also promised a doubling of aid by 2010. That would have made an enormous difference in Zambia where foreign aid accounted for $1bn – one third – of the annual budget.

Zambia used the debt relief to make rural healthcare free. Poor families had previously had to scrape together 8,000 Zambian kwacha, the equivalent of £1, to join the country's healthcare scheme and another 50p every time they needed to see a doctor. When the fees were scrapped patient numbers rose dramatically – by as much as a third in some parts of the country. But the new policy could only be successful if Zambia could afford the additional doctors, nurses, medicines and medical facilities needed to deal with the surge in patients.

The additional aid from the West never came. Mwanawasa was furious, and his ministers called it a betrayal. Mwanawasa had been intending to remind the leaders of the rich world of their promise at the G8 summit in Japan in July but he never recovered from his stroke.

Steve Bloomfield

Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, politician: born Mufulira, Zambia 3 September 1948; Vice-President of Zambia 1991-94, President 2002-08; twice married (six children); died Paris 19 August 2008.