Zambia Mourns Mwanawasa

The death of Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa will usher in a period of national soul - searching, and will prompt questions about the direction his successors will take one of Africa's most promising democracies.

By Dr Knox Chitiyo, Head, Africa Programme, RUSI

Levy MwanawasaThe death of Zambia’s President Levy Mwanawasa will focus attention on a nation which is often overshadowed by its tumultuous neighbours, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Zambia, which is a portal for central, eastern and southern Africa is, however, a major player in its own right, and Levy Mwanawasa was one of the best and brightest of a new generation of African leaders who exemplified the oft heralded ‘African Renaissance’. Mwanawasa, who made his name as a lawyer before turning to politics, oversaw Zambia’s transition to a vibrant democracy, and helped to spur the nation’s economic growth. However, beneath the surface, there were serious questions about Zambia’s constitution; the ‘war on corruption’; poverty alleviation; the role of Chinese and Indian investment in Zambia; and Zambia’s role in SADC. Mwanawasa had been ill for some time, and his death was not unexpected ( indeed, South Africa’s president Thabo Mbeki was memorably obliged to retract a premature obituary for the late President earlier this year). Now, for Zambia’s political elite, the waiting- room season is over; ready or not, the post- Mwanawasa era has begun.

Zambia has had three major political – ideological eras; the first was led by former President Kenneth Kaunda, who established an authoritarian liberation - nationalist template which proved to be hugely influential for a later generation of leaders. Kaunda put Zambia in the frontline of the struggle for southern Africa’s liberation, and made a reputation as a dedicated proponent of African nationalism and liberation; for all his fiery rhetoric, Kaunda also proved to be an astute mediator who helped to broker settlement talks in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique. Kaunda, who ruled Zambia from independence in 1964, until his election defeat in 1991, proved to be less amenable to political challenges from his peers in Zambia, and established an authoritarian tradition which only succumbed to the democratic tide in 1991. His successor, Frederick Chiluba, started out promisingly, but his democratic credentials were soon vitiated by allegations of personal and state corruption. Chiluba’s attempts to revise the Constitution to allow him to contest a third term in office, displayed his authoritarian aspirations, while his sustained attacks on former President Kaunda, whilst occasionally providing good theatre, also made Chiluba appear petty and vindictive. Levy Mwanawasa, who was Chiluba’s surprise choice of candidate to represent the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) in the 2001 elections, eventually triumphed after a bitterly contested election, albeit with only 29 per cent of the vote.

Overall, Mwanawasa’s greatest achievement was to re-establish Zambians’ sense of national pride, and to show to the world that Zambia should not be seen simply as an annexe to South Africa or Zimbabwe, but as a major player in its own right. Although not one of Africa's globally influential "lion" economies such as Nigeria or South Africa, Zambia had emerged as a regionally powerful "leopard" economy. Under Mwanawasa, Zambia averaged an economic growth rate of 5 per cent over the last six years. Always the quintessential pragmatist, he curbed government expenditure on grandiose projects, established a good working relationship with the IMF and World Bank, and simultaneously encouraged significant infrastructural investment from Asian investors. He also left his imprimatur on Zambia’s political life; his anti–corruption crusade, although controversial and ultimately of dubious success, was hugely symbolic, and served as a template for Africa’s anti–corruption drive in the new millennium. The crusade also played a vital part in the re–establishment of relations with the IMF and World Bank. Mwanawasa also established a political ethos which is seen as a model for other African leaders to follow.

Although he was often accused of a ‘soft’ authoritarianism, Mwanawasa was not as overbearing as his predecessors. Rebukes and political pressure, rather than imprisonment and violence, were the tools he chose to use against political opponents. He also enforced the clear separation of duties between the Zambian police force, and the Army and encouraged a professional, rather than politicised, security sector as a major plinth of national revival. Mwanawasa was a technocrat who believed that the rule of law, rather than the rule of war, should apply in politics, and the trial of former president Frederick Chiluba on charges of corruption, was seen as groundbreaking in its attempt to end Africa’s culture of impunity. It was this ethos which allowed Mwanawasa to survive perennial challenges to his legitimacy. However, all was not sweetness and light, and the post–Mwanawasa administration will face searching questions on a number of issues.

The most crucial question is, who will be his substantive successor, and how will he or she be elected? This is tied to Zambia’s longstanding constitutional question. In Zambia’s national elections, the winning candidate is the person who receives the most votes, regardless of whether that person has a majority. Thus, Mwanawasa was elected President in 2001, despite receiving less than 30 per cent of the vote. The opposition has long challenged this “first past the post” system, and in 2007 the Constitution Review Commission recommended that the revised Constitution be processed through Parliament’s constituent Assembly. Mwanawasa did not encourage the process, and as a result was accused by a furious opposition of trying to stifle democratic procedures and debate in the interests of his own political longevity. The Constitutional debate had been dormant over the last year, but is now urgent, and could lead to a political crisis if not addressed. It also impacts on the immediate succession; according to the Constitution, the Acting President will continue to act in that capacity upon the death or incapacitation of the head of state, but a special election must be called within ninety days. With no obvious long–term successor within the ruling MMD, and with a tradition of acrimonious debate between the MMD and the opposition parties, the stage is set for a bruising contest to find Mwanawasa’s successor. The immediate signs are good; the MMD has acted swiftly to formalise Rupiah Banda (Mwanawasa’s deputy since 2006) as Acting President, but the succession question is far from settled. Finance Minister Ngandu Magonda could emerge as a strong intra-party challenger to Banda, and there are a number of other potential candidates. Opposition leaders Michael Sato (a populist–nationalist who leads the Patriotic Front); and businessman Haikande Hichilema (head of the United Party for National Development) are also expected to make strong presidential challenges. There is also provision in the constitution for the Acting President to serve out the rest of the former President’s term of office, but the opposition would almost certainly launch legal challenges to the MMD if the ruling party pursued the latter option. Mwanawasa’s death will thus instigate a major test of African democratic transitions.

Zambia’s economy will also be under review. The period from 2002–2007 ushered in a surge in Zambia’s economic development, with a strong kwacha (the national currency) and an increase in domestic food production. The Mwanawasa government prioritised the revival of Zambia’s agricultural sector, with Zambia emerging as one of the region’s primary exporters of grain. There have also been significant partnerships with Chinese and Indian private and state entrepreneurs. However, there are ominous signs for Zambia’s economy; the kwacha has depreciated by 6 per cent in 2008, and the rising cost of imported foodstuffs has resulted in increased inflation. Most worryingly, despite the overall strong economic performance, rural and economic poverty has increased during Mwanawasa’s tenure. This is significant, because urban protests against the high cost of living, sometimes morphed into bread riots, which in turn were used as pretexts by the Kaunda and Chiluba regimes to forcibly crush political dissent. The new administration will have to act quickly and decisively, to ensure that there is no conjunction of political uncertainty and economic malaise – a recipe for authoritarian rule. China’s role in Zambia will also continue to be a political issue: Michael Sato campaigned on a vigorous anti – Chinese platform in 2006, and there are continued pockets of anti–Chinese and anti–Indian sentiment in Zambia. The political transition process will directly influence Zambia’s economic performance; a messy transition and any hint of xenophobia will adversely impact on a number of investment projects. There are also questions about the anti–corruption initiative, which some saw as a Mwanawasa’s attempt to settle scores with Chiluba, rather than as a genuine attempt to weed out political and economic corruption.

Zambia’s foreign policy will also be under scrutiny. Mwanawasa was the first African leader to openly break ranks with the ideology of patriotic blackness, by openly criticising Robert Mugabe’s rule, and calling Zimbabwe ‘a sinking Titanic’. He also welcomed white Zimbabwean farmers who had been forced off their land by ZANU –PF militias after 2000, realising that their expertise could help to rebuild Zambia’s agriculture. As chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Mwanawasa drew the ire of Presidents Mbeki and Mugabe, by convening an extraordinary SADC Heads of Government meeting in Lusaka in May 2008, to which he invited Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. There is no doubt that the Zimbabwe crisis has divided SADC, which has fragmented into pro–Mugabe vs. pro-opposition blocs. Zambia’s economy has benefited from Zimbabwe’s self–immolation, but the question now is what role Zambia will play in helping to bring about peace in Zimbabwe, and what her policy would be towards a deal which includes Robert Mugabe and ZANU–PF as significant powers. Further down the line, there is concern amongst Zambians that any future Zimbabwean “reconstruction dividend” will come at Zambia’s expense.

Levi Mwanawasa’s death, though not unexpected, has caused real shock and grief not just in Zambia, but throughout Africa. Although flawed as a politician, his ideals reinvigorated his nation and posited a pragmatic post–nationalism which made the rest of Africa sit up and take note. The western media take on him is that he will be remembered as the man who criticised Mugabe; although true, this view of Mwanawasa is highly reductionist, and exhibits the fetishist hallmarks of ‘Zimbabwe syndrome’; he is much more than a footnote in Zimbabwe’s history of suffering, and will be remembered for his achievements for Zambia in particular, and Africa as a whole. Mwanawasa’s successors will need to prove that Zambia’s democracy, economic growth and status in Africa are not fragile, but permanent.


The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.

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