It has been nearly five years since Frederick Chiluba finished his 10-year run as president of Zambia, a tenure marked by allegations of rampant corruption. But the former president's shadow has loomed large here as Zambians prepare for a bitterly contested national election Thursday that will decide whether Mr. Chiluba's successor, President Levy Mwanawasa, gets a second term.
In 2001, after Zambians rejected Chiluba's efforts to secure a third term, he handpicked Mr. Mwanawasa as his successor – only to see Mwanawasa pursue him in an antigraft probe backed by Western donors.
But turnabout is fair play in Zambian politics, where personalities rule and some grudges never die.
So perhaps it was no surprise that Chiluba last week turned on his ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) party and his one-time vice president Mwanawasa by endorsing the top challenger, populist firebrand Michael Sata.
Chiluba's move, seen by many here as a quid pro quo, also may have been spurred by the fact that Mr. Sata said this month that, if elected, he would likely drop corruption charges against Chiluba.
The new Chiluba-Sata alliance has set off alarm bells among Zambians who have been struggling to maintain their country's reputation as a regional leader in the effort to stamp out corruption.
"If the presidential candidate who is promising to drop the charges wins and goes ahead and implements his promise ... it's quite frightening for the prospects for the anticorruption fight," says Alfred Chanda, president of the Zambian chapter of Transparency International, an international corruption watchdog group. "[Mr. Sata] has not said that his priority will be to fight corruption – that's very worrying."
Sata and other critics call Mwanawasa's anti-corruption crusade a politically motivated and ineffective witch hunt against Chiluba.
More than 150 charges of abusing public office and stealing public funds were brought against Chiluba, but the vast majority have been dropped. Chiluba still faces charges relating to his alleged theft of almost $500,000 in state funds. Critics say the cases involving Chiluba and his allies have taken too long to wind through the judicial system.
The broader campaign against graft, which involved the creation of a government-level anti-corruption unit, has produced only one conviction. "In the long run, we can say we haven't yet seen much. We expected more from that," says Lusaka resident Kasamu Stevenson, who is supporting businessman Haikande Hichilema, the third major candidate in the race.
Chiluba's support for Sata could prove influential, especially in northern areas of Zambia, where he remains popular, says Neo Simutanyi, a political analyst and pollster with the Institute for Economic and Social Research, based in the capital, Lusaka. "It does help in some places," but probably not enough to swing the race, he says.
A savvy political operator who worked in Chiluba's government, Sata has long been laying the groundwork for his campaign and has found support among many who say that economic gains touted by Mwanawasa's government have not brought prosperity to many in a country where 73 percent still live in poverty.
Yet, saying he'd drop graft charges against Chiluba could backfire.
Mwanawasa has seized on Sata's comments and pledged to continue his anticorruption push if reelected. And after civil society and church leaders – and the editorial board of the Post, Zambia's largest independent newspaper – condemned the idea of a halt to Chiluba's prosecution, Sata has had to make clear that he, too, wants thorough, but also quick, action on corruption cases.
The World Bank and donors like the United States have praised Mwanawasa's anticorruption bid as well as his economic policies; Western donors agreed to cancel almost all of Zambia's $7.2 billion foreign debt last year.
Observers acknowledge that it is difficult to predict what a Sata presidency might mean for the anticorruption fight in Zambia. But some warn that a halt to Chiluba's prosecution could hurt Zambia's good reputation in a region that has struggled with corruption – especially with World Bank head Paul Wolfowitz pushing for stronger ties between aid and anticorruption benchmarks.
"I couldn't believe ... that Michael Sata would ... entertain the idea that he would put a stop to this particular case," says Callisto Madavo, a visiting professor at Georgetown University who worked as the World Bank's vice president for Africa from 1996 to 2004. "The point is that there should be zero tolerance for corruption."
Mr. Madavo says changes to the Zambian antigraft drive might draw renewed scrutiny from donors. "I'm sure people would look very, very carefully at that," he says. "Zambia's been on the right track.... It would be a pity if a new administration did not continue and build on this recent progress."