This is my take on the death of Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa (published in a recent issue of The Independent). The Economist also had a interesting obituary.
Those familiar with the health of Levy Mwanawasa, late President of Zambia, may be saddened but not surprised by his recent death at the relatively young age of 59. He has been in a fragile state since the automobile accident in 1991 that nearly killed him, suffered a first stroke just prior to Zambia’s 2006 presidential elections and then suffered a second and final stroke on the eve of the African Union summit, held this June in Sharm al-Sheik. Though he has been in treatment since June, he never recovered, and passed away in a Parisian hospital on the morning of August 19, 2008.
His death may not come as a shock to those who follow news in the African community, but much of the rest of the world may be asking, Levy who? President of what? That is if they even hear word that the Zambian president has died. Most would struggle just to locate Zambia on a map.
President Mwanawasa never held the limelight in the way that so many African leaders have, including Robert Mugabe, Thabo Mbeki, Omar al-Bashir, Mwai Kibaki, Nelson Mandela, Mobutu Sese Seko, Kwame Nkrumah – the list goes on and on. Some of these men became famous, or rather infamous, for the sheer scale of corruption, incompetence, or violence over which they presided or directed. Others were revolutionaries in their own right, involved in historic struggles signifying the triumph over colonialism.
There are few African leaders that have taken the spotlight for their good leadership or commitment to democracy, Nelson Mandela being the major exception. At least, there have not been many who have taken this spotlight for long. In recent years, a string of leaders on the continent have been hailed as part of the “new breed of African leader,” including our own President Museveni. Others that have been included in this category at one time or another include Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi, Kenya’s Mwai Kibaki, and Ghana’s Jerry Rawlings. Yet surely and steadily all of these leaders fell out of favor with many of their own people and the international community at large.
Their fame however, did not reach its true heights for the successes of their early years in power (at least outside of the aid community) but rather for their sometimes spectacular slides into corruption and chaos. Perversely, their tendencies toward authoritarianism have actually brought them more fame than any of them ever had as part of the “new breed.” Kibaki did not become a household name outside of East Africa, for example, until the world watched in horror and shock as Kenya slipped into a violent chaos in early 2008 following the contested presidential elections. Even Rwandan President Paul Kagame is better known worldwide as an autocrat who has violently squelched opposition than for the truly remarkable transformation Rwanda has made under his rule. So it is not particularly surprising that Mwanawasa has slipped under the radar until his untimely death this month.
But towards the end of his presidency, the late Zambian President was beginning to make waves and perhaps could have begun to make an international name for himself. He successfully removed the immunity that had been protecting former Zambian president Frederick Chiluba from facing prosecution for corruption charges, and Mwanawasa was one of the few African leaders who did not mince words over Mugaba’s reign of terror (or at least terrible policy). In 2007 he accused Mugabe of turning his country into a “sinking Titanic” and this year described the results of the flawed Zimbabwean presidential election as “scandalous.” He seemed unafraid to step on the toes of those he caught with their hands in the cookie jar – or ballot box for that matter. Thus, Mwanawasa’s life was cut short just when he seemed on the verge of becoming part of the “new breed.” Would he have continued along this path or fallen to the doldrums of autocracy like so many who went before him? And was he as good a leader as his obituaries and eulogies now make him out to be?
At the beginning of his presidency, he was considered by many to be dull and slow. Not unlike U.S. president George W. Bush, though perhaps less notoriously, Mwanawasa had a tendency to blunder in public speaking, at one point even calling Chiluba “my elder sister.” He soon overcame this perception and the title “the Cabbage” that he had earned, becoming a formidable force against those he believed to be corrupt. Chiluba thought the scratch-my-back-and-I’ll-scratch-yours approach would work with Mwanawasa, but he was in for a nasty surprise.
Through Mwanawasa was handpicked for the presidency by Chiluba in 2001, he felt no obligation to protect his predecessor from facing the consequences of his crooked dealings while in power. Shortly after coming to power, after a final wrangle in which Chiluba refused to step down, Mwanawasa officially requested that the Zambian Parliament lift Chiluba’s presidential immunity. Parliament granted this request and Chiluba was charged and arrested in February 2003. Others who had worked in Chiluba’s government were also charged with embezzling public funds at this time.
In addition to his successes in fighting corruption, Zambia’s economy began to recover after its near collapse under Chiluba and Kenneth Kaunda. Mwanawasa was praised for his administration’s strict fiscal and monetary policies. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth has been around 5% per year, and inflation has been falling over the years. In response to his prudent policy, the IMF and World Bank wrote off a large chunk of Zambia’s debt, around US$3.8 billion. Several other of Zambia’s cooperating partners also wrote off much of the remaining debt, such that the country’s US$7.2 billion debt was effectively reduced to about US$500 million.
Under Mwanawasa copper mining slowly recovered, and its success helped to jump-start other industries as well, including stone-crushing, trucking, lime producing, cement producing and oil marketing, according to Zambian scholar Alex Ng’oma.
Despite the economic successes, however, many Zambians remain below the poverty line. According to the 2007/2009 Human Development Report, the average Zambian should not expect to live much past the age of 40, nearly one in five children die before the age of five, HIV/AIDS prevalence is at 17%, and some 46% of the population is undernourished. Some also criticize Mwanawasa for selectively fighting corruption – prosecuting some former government officials while simultaneously allowing others to continue working under him in the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) government.
These criticisms notwithstanding, late President Mwanawasa appeared to be forging ahead in the fight for democracy and against corruption up until the stroke that would cost him his life. It is impossible to know what path he would have taken had he lived on. Would he have continued to stand up against abuses of power, or would he eventually succumb to them himself, as so many have before? Did his premature death ultimately preserve his legacy as an upstanding leader? We will never know, and sadly, most of the world will never care.
His small victories were eclipsed by catastrophic blunders of his contemporaries. The world seems to acknowledge only the devils and revolutionaries on the continent. The names al-Bashir and Mugabe roll of the tongue, along with a host of opinions, concerns, and anger. But Mwana-what? Zambia does not make headlines with its small successes, but rather with tales of pain, death, starvation and hardship.
Perhaps Mwanawasa could have become part of the generation that changes the face of leadership in Africa – no more Big Men, no more revolutionaries, no more self-obsessed life-presidents. President Museveni himself once explained, “The main cause of Africa’s crisis is leaders who do not want to leave power. There is no reason why anyone should be president for more than ten years.” Unfortunately he was never given the opportunity to truly become this new face for leadership. The tyrants and would-be dictators in Africa are stealing the show from those who are making small in-ways in improving the lives of their people. It is about time that we acknowledge the triumphs of small men (and women), instead of giving the Big Men all the attention they don’t deserve.