In Africa, new enemy of graft

Zambia takes on ex-president in the biggest anticorruption drive since independence.

At the Jordan Inn, a small cafe in a dusty settlement 10 miles outside Lusaka, nearly everyone has strong feelings about Zambia's former President Frederick Chiluba.

"He's a thief," shouts Lameck Make, a local butcher. "He should go to jail."

"We should make an example of him," chimes the cafe's patron, Valentine Munyake.

Few Zambians have good things to say about Mr. Chiluba, who is accused of stealing millions of dollars from the public coffers. Instead, they're cheering on the anticorruption campaign of the country's new president, Levy Manawasa.

In a bold political move, Mr. Manawasa – hand-picked by Chiluba – has turned his sights on his predecessor and other former officials. In doing so, Zambia – considered one of the world's more corrupt countries by Transparency International – may emerge as a model for how African countries can clean house, and win aid money.

The case stands to be a first test for a continent that just weeks ago, at the launch of its new pan-African body, the African Union, pledged to promote good governance in order to attract Western investment.

"Zambia has set an example here," says Dipak Patel, an opposition member of Parliament and former member of Chiluba's cabinet who, along with three others, was recently acquitted of defaming the former president. "The image of Africa is that it's corrupt, corrupt, corrupt. Here in Zambia we're doing something about it."

Chiluba, who denies all the charges against him, swept to power in 1991 after the country's first multiparty elections, ending the 27-year reign of the country's independence hero, Kenneth Kaunda. Chiluba's election was cheered as the beginning of a new era of multiparty democracy and free-market economics. But over time his party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), fractured as many members left, alleging corruption.

Last year, after Chiluba unsuccessfully tried to alter Zambia's Constitution to allow himself a third term in office, he picked Manawasa – a former vice president who quit the government in 1994 over concerns about corruption – to be his successor.

Observers say that Chiluba thought Manawasa was distant enough from the previous administration to appeal to voters, but close enough to be controlled by Chiluba.

Manawasa won the December election – now being contested in court – squeaking by a field of 10 candidates crowded with new parties headed by former MMD members. (Manawasa is accused of rigging the election, a charge he denies. Most observers say the charges against him are unfounded.)

But Manawasa has not become Chiluba's puppet. In fact, observers say Manawasa has used the anticorruption campaign to unite opponents and shore up his base of support.

In an unprecedented speech before parliament on June 11, Manawasa accused the former government of using a secret bank account to siphon millions of dollars to Chiluba's family and members of his administration. He also said that Chiluba had paid $20.5 million to a Congolese businessman for weapons that never materialized.

Much of the evidence was unearthed by the legal team defending Mr. Patel and his three co-defendants. Key to their case was evidence of the secret account, which they learned about from a series of anonymous brown envelopes filled with copies of bank statements and receipts left on the defendants' doorsteps.

Since Manawasa's speech, several high-ranking government officials, including Zambia's Chief Justice and foreign minister, have resigned in disgrace.

Chiluba himself is currently fighting to maintain his presidential immunity through the courts. The court is due to decide on Aug. 16 whether Parliament exceeded its authority by revoking it. If the court rules against Chiluba, a full investigation will be launched and a criminal trial will likely result.

Manawasa's willingness to take on corruption has improved his reputation in the country. Less than a third of voters supported him in the last election.

"He's good. We like him because he's dealing with corruption," says Violet Mtonga, as she hangs clothes at her home next door to the Jordan Inn.

The president has earned a grudging respect even among members of citizens groups who say that the MMD rigged Manawasa's victory.

Still, many say that they worry the new president will not have the political will to carry the campaign to its end. Manawasa says that he will pardon Chiluba if he returns what he stole. This has outraged many in civil society.

"I think he needs to be caged," says Bishop Paul Mususu, director of the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia and a prominent civil society leader. "Both as an example to others that as a country we will not accept this, and to show that no one is above the law."

Zambia is not the only southern African country grappling with a long-time leader accused of corruption. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe continued his 22-year reign in March with an election victory that most say was rigged.

But Zambia is the only country that has successfully blocked such a leader from staying in power, and threatened to hold him accountable for his actions while in office.

Bishop Mususu says Zambia's success is due largely to pressure from its civil society. Already, civil leaders from neighboring Malawi have come to ask for advice on how to defeat their own president's attempt for a third term.

For his part, Manawasa says that if he's found guilty of election rigging, he will respect the ruling of the courts.

"The most important thing is that the process of the law takes it course and that we start with a clean slate," says Emily Sikazwe chairperson, of Women for Change, a local group that is outspoken on the corruption issue.

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