The Late Zambian President Fredrick Chiluba: A Legacy of Failed Democratic Transition

Fredrick Titus Chiluba, the former president of Zambia, passed away on June 18, leaving behind a powerful legacy as one of the key individuals who did most to usher in multi-party rule in Zambia. A former trade union leader, Chiluba gained reputation as a champion for workers’ rights. As member of the then newly established Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD), Chiluba led the struggle to end first President Kenneth Kaunda’s one-party rule. In 1991, Chiluba won the country’s first multi-party elections to become Zambia’s second president since independence.

True to his billing as a democratic leader who sought to change the course the country had taken under Kaunda, Chiluba and the MMD government drafted a new constitution that opened the country to multiparty politics, increased press freedom and seemed to lay the formal groundwork for a formidable democracy to grow. Having inherited a troubled economy, Chiluba worked with the Bretton Woods institutions to bolster a free market economy. He also oversaw the privatization of hitherto inefficient state owned enterprises. After decades of misrule, it then appeared that the new president had successfully helped place Zambia on a viable democratic trajectory.

However, it quickly became clear that the prevailing Zambian institutions were unable to constrain political elites and other rent-seeking actors from serving their own interests at the expense of broader development goals. Although he had actively protested against Kaunda’s authoritarian rule and advocated for term limits in 1991, by 2001 Chiluba ironically attempted to amend the Zambian constitution so that he could stand for a third term. It was only after public protests and objections within his own party that Chiluba decided to back down from this action. He remained leader of the MMD in hopes of continuing to exert his influence on Zambian politics even after he left office.

Worse, his purported economic governance reforms were short lived. During his rule, economic mismanagement and corruption increased. Despite the various reforms, Chiluba maintained strong executive powers permitting him to act with impunity. In 2007, a British court found Chiluba guilty of stealing $46 million of public funds. However, Zambia’s weak legal system failed to pursue the case. The former president’s own protégé, Levy Mwanawasa, also brought numerous corruption charges against him for theft of public assets but many of these cases were dropped due to bureaucratic hurdles and at times judicial tampering. The privatization of state owned companies was mishandled with millions of dollars still unaccounted for.

Despite granting press freedom and freedom to form opposition parties, prominent journalists and opposition party officials were often arrested on trumped up charges of plotting to overthrow the government. Soon, the new government began to mirror the previous regime and many of the accountability mechanisms outlined in the constitution were either not enforced or undermined by political elites. Chiluba started out strengthening the democratic process in Zambia but toward the end of his rule he worked to weaken democracy in the country. Thus, what had initially appeared to be a case study of successful democratic transition in Africa turned out to be a failed experiment. In fact, it is fair to say that the Chiluba of 1991 would not have recognized the Chiluba of 2001, a rather common reversal of principles among African leaders.

Africa has made noteworthy gains in the transition to democracy and now regular competitive elections are the order of the day. For example, there are 27 presidential, legislative and local elections scheduled to be held in 2011. However, elections by themselves do not make democracies. The Zambian democratic transition under Chiluba failed because elections were not supported by strong institutions. In order to consolidate and entrench democratic ideals in Africa, some key reforms are needed. The first is the elimination of imperial presidencies; this can be done by devolving power to local units and strengthening the judiciary and legislative branches so as to develop institutional arrangements that place checks on the executive branch. Second, African leaders and civil society need to play a greater role to safeguard democracy. Leaders must adhere to the principles of transparency and accountability as spelled out in their constitutions. African countries also need stronger civil society that can demand greater accountability from governments and influence the future of democracy on the continent. In addition, the fight against corruption is essential to engendering democracy in Africa. Increased effort is needed to prevent, identify and prosecute corruption in government.

The late Chiluba will be remembered as a champion of democracy, but who easily abandoned the principles of good governance to serve his own self interest of amassing power and wealth. Thus, the primary lesson from his leadership is that, without strong institutions that place effective constraints on leaders with self-seeking behaviors, Africans cannot hope to sustain democratic leadership. Unfortunately, there are many “Chilubas” in the continent who after assuming power under the pretext of advancing democracy end up abandoning the same principles for personal gain. But like Chiluba who died a disgraced statesman, the same legacy awaits these leaders.