Remembering Mwanawasa, Six Years Later

By IAfrica
In Zambia
Aug 19th, 2014
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Six years ago today, the Third Republican President Levy Mwanawasa passed away at the Percy Military Hospital in Paris following health complications from a stroke he suffered at the African Union summit in Egypt.

Mwanawasa was President of Zambia from 2002 to 2008, and is remembered by many for his achievements, which included an anti-corruption drive that was popular among international donors, allowing Zambia to negotiate a number of debt forgiveness deals, as well as his frequent clashes with Robert Mugabe. He was one of the most outspoken African heads of state on issues of poverty and HIV/AIDS – and even if his actions were unable to solve the issues, his humanitarian commitment appeared genuine.

But his presidency was not without its share of controversies and allegations of corruption, mismanagement of the economy, and political persecution of his opponents.

Plucked from relative obscurity by President Frederick Chiluba, it was originally believed that the former VP and State Counsel Mwanawasa would play the role of a puppet to Chiluba, who had recently been blocked from making a constitutional amendment to extend his rule for a third term. But Mwanawasa quickly bit the hand that fed him, and opened up a anti-corruption case against his former boss, resulting in removal and parliamentary immunity and a successful trial.

Mwanawasa hailed from Mufulira area on the Copperbelt, belonging to the minority tribe, the Lenje. After matriculating at the University of Zambia, Mwanawasa started his own law firm in 1978, and later served as Zambian Solicitor-General from 1985-1986 under President Kenneth Kaunda. He handled his first politically charged case in 1989, when he successfully defended former vice-president Lieutenant General Christon Tembo and others charged with plotting a coup against then president Kenneth Kaunda.

After Chiluba’s election in 1991, Mwanawasa was selected as Vice President, but later resigned a few years later after he clashed with Michael Sata, who at the time served as Chiluba’s Minister without Portfolio.

Mwanawasa’s election in 2001 was hotly contested by Anderson Mazoka, who very nearly defeated him. His total only reached 29%, the lowest of any elected president in Zambia. He fared much better in 2006, gaining 42.98% of the vote.

Although he is generally praised for achieving improvements in inflation and an average GDP growth of 5%, there are other critics who believe he caused significant damage to the economy by scaring away some of the country’s most important foreign investors. Most critically, Anglo-American decided to pull up stakes and give up its investment in the Konkola Copper Mine (KCM) after Mwanawasa’s clumsy attempt to squeeze them for higher taxes. This resulted in Mwanawasa organizing the sale of KCM to Vedanta for a pittance – an issue which has become scandalous once again in recent months.

What are the lessons that we can draw from this sixth anniversary of our president’s passing?

Firstly, there is the matter of transparency – after Mwanawasa suffered his stroke at the African Union summit, Zambians were left nearly completely in the dark with regard to the president’s health, creating confusion and disorder. The same process is once again happening with President Michael Sata’s various illnesses and the PF government’s habit of lying about it (i.e. his “working holiday” to Israel). Zambia needs greater transparency from its public servants, as it seems that upon entering State House, every leader forgets who they work for.

Secondly, there is a lesson about basic compassion. When Mwanawasa suffered a near-fatal car accident in 1991, his enemies were remorseless in their mocking of his speech impediment, with Dipak Patel and Fred M’membe coining the insulting nickname “Cabbage.” Of course the cruelest bully of the bunch was Mwanawasa’s opponent Michael Sata, who relentlessly attacked the president’s health status. Captured on video, Sata told a crowd, “There is no way I can work with this man because I know him. This man, he can’t govern, he can’t rule. He’s incapable. He’s politically impotent.”

Now that President Sata suffers from his own health problems and incapacity for office (as well as slurred speech), it would seem that we should heed the lesson of Proverbs 26:27 – “Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein: and he that rolleth a stone, it will return upon him.”

Thirdly and lastly, as we remember Mwanawasa today both for his achievements and his human flaws, we should think more carefully about the matter of succession. Zambia requires a clear procedure and a clearly identified individual that is responsible for taking the reigns of power in the event of a problem. Mwanawasa was absolutely silent on the issue of succession – thankfully his Vice President Rupiah Banda was eligible to serve as Acting President and safely maintain stability during the transition. President Sata has appointed Guy Scott, who cannot stand as president due to the parentage clause, which creates additional and unnecessary tensions within the ruling party that ultimately has a negative impact on governance for the rest of Zambia.

So indeed we find ourselves six years later and two presidents after Mwanawasa’s passing, but have we really learned anything at all from history? When will we put this political amnesia into the history books?


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