Levy Mwanawasa: Zambian president who dared to criticise Mugabe

August 19, 2008 12:00 am

, LUSAKA, August 19 – Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, who died on Tuesday aged 59, built a reputation as a darling of the West by daring to criticise Robert Mugabe and keeping a tight rein on his country’s economy.

A lawyer by profession, Mwanawasa, who had been in hospital in Paris since suffering a stroke at the end of June, first came to prominence as a leader of the Multi-party Movement for Democracy (MMD) which ended the one-party rule of founding president Kenneth Kaunda in 1991.

His political career, however, was widely seen as over until he was unexpectedly plucked from semi-retirement by the outgoing president Frederick Chiluba who annointed him as his successor.

It was a decision Chiluba would live to regret, later finding himself on trial for stealing millions of dollars of state funds as Mwanawasa proved that he was prepared to ruffle feathers despite a mild-mannered demeanour.

While Chiluba fumed at his protege, his neighbour Mugabe was also infuriated by Mwanawasa’s lack of deference.

With tens of thousands of Zimbabweans heading north to escape the world’s highest rate of inflation, Mwanawasa caused severe embarrassment to Mugabe by likening the state of his economy to the Titanic.

And when the rest of southern Africa’s leaders kept quiet over opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai’s decision to pull out of a run-off election against Mugabe, Mwanawasa described their silence as "scandalous."

"Free campaigns have not been allowed, and the opposition have been denied access to the media," he told reporters.

His temerity in criticising Mugabe — in stark contrast to the much-criticised quiet diplomacy of South African President Thabo Mbeki — won him the enmity of the Harare regime who portrayed him as a puppet of old colonial power Britain.

Western powers meanwhile warmed to him, with European nations stumping up 160 million dollars in aid for Zambian poverty eradication programmes for 2008.

Under Mwanawasa, Zambia built up foreign reserves to a record 1.1 billion dollars (700 million euros) while inflation was kept around the 10 percent level.

Nevertheless, he admitted to having only scratched the surface of poverty with a majority of Zambians still living below the poverty line.

And his much-vaunted campaign against corruption resulted in few convictions even if Chiluba is currently in the dock.

He also had to face accusations of nepotism with his wife Maureen often seen as the real power behind the throne.

She was instrumental in persuading him to run again for president in September 2006 only months after he had suffered his first stroke.

The Zambian leader had a long record of ill health, having suffered from prostate cancer, hypertension, diabetes and injuries from a road accident in 1993 when he was deputy president.

"The only good thing that happened after that accident was that I lost (my) appetite for alcohol," Mwanawasa said.

Mwanawasa became Zambia’s third president on January 2, 2002, after he won a controversial election, widely believed to have been rigged for him by Chiluba.

He stunned many by then turning against his mentor and instigating his arrest on charges of corruption and theft of public funds.

He was later re-elected for the second and final term in office in 2006 after another controversial election that opposition leader Michael Sata also claimed had been rigged.

Mwanawasa’s first taste of public office came when he served as solicitor-general under Kaunda before he defected to co-found the MMD in 1991.

Appointed vice president by Chiluba, he later quit in protest against corruption and drug trafficking by senior government officials.

A former Jehovah’s Witness, he later joined the Baptists.

After divorcing his first wife, Mwanawasa married fellow lawyer Maureen who survives him along with his six children.


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