This week I have been learning something of Zambia's history. The second President of the Republic of Zambia, Frederick Chiluba, died and we are in a period of national mourning. BBC and the newspapers have been full of discussions of his life and legacy, a very mixed story.
Chiluba was the first president to win a multi-party election in Zambia. Formerly called Northern Rhodesia under British colonial rule, Zambia became independent in 1964. It was ruled for the next 27 years by one leader, Kenneth Kaunda, under a single-party system.
Kaunda established a strongly centralized government and closely guarded his power. He imprisoned Chiluba without charges when Chiluba, a labor leader, appeared to be gaining popularity as a political challenger. He campaigned against the corruption and autocracy rampant in the Kaunda administration.
Chiluba united a number of groups into the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD). They forced Kaunda to hold an election in 1991, and Chiluba won with over 70% of the vote.
People had high hopes when he came to office. His election was hailed as a shining example of democracy in action in a continent where the norm was "imperial presidencies" of long duration. He was called a "Black Moses" and a "Liberator". His policies and initiatives at first brought an expansion of civil liberties. He drafted a constitution which included freedom of the press and freedom to form political parties. He worked to modernize and liberalize the economy.
This impressive set of reforms did not last, however. As one commentator put it, after a few years, Chiluba was no longer transforming the system, but instead, Chiluba was being transformed. He began to spend lavishly on his personal wardrobe and lifestyle, from public funds. Economic mismanagement and corruption began to re-emerge in the government. The accountability mechanisms outlined in the constitution he promulgated were not enforced. He began to act to suppress other politicians, often jailing opponents on trumped up charges. He even tried to get an amendment to the constitution as he was reaching his limit of two five-year terms, but a public outcry stopped him.
Comments I have heard here vary. Some honor the accomplishments of bringing in multi-party democracy and press freedom, with no mention of his appropriation of at least $50 million of public money for his personal use. There was a long trial at which the weak judicial system here acquitted him just this year, because the judge said that his well-documented excessive personal spending couldn't be proven to have been from government money. (Chiluba claimed that it was "personal gifts from admirers" whose identity he would not reveal.) Others condemn him not only for corruption, but also for failing to live up to his promises of strengthening democracy.
All over Africa, there are examples of leaders who stay in power for many years, either because the system allows it or because they manipulate the system. Some months ago there was a close election in Ivory Coast which the incumbent president lost. He then refused to leave office. He surrounded the presidential offices with military loyal to him, and the newly-elected president set up his administration in a hotel guarded by UN peacekeepers. It took months to get the old president out, even after world leaders and the United Nations all declared the election free and fair and the result clear.
I have been reading some analyses of the governance issues in Africa, and there seems to be a consensus that many nations do not have a balance of power between executive, judicial and legislative branches of government, with too much power in the presidency. Decision-making and implementation is controlled at the national level and not shared with districts/states/regions. Many countries don't fully recognize freedom of the press, and they suppress dissenting viewpoints. Recently in Zimbabwe and Uganda, members of opposition parties have been thrown in jail for criticizing the government or leading peaceful demonstrations. Civil society institutions are weak, and people feel powerless because there is so little transparency and accountability in the government structures.
All of this is to say that while I am quite critical of America right now--both our foreign policy and the way in which our domestic policy decisions have increased inequality and eroded community--nonetheless, I definitely see some of the strengths of our system. Of course, we are better in concept than in practice, like every human institution. But I do appreciate our strong constitution and bill of rights and our balance of powers. And the opportunities to practice advocacy and to work for change.
I hope we can see more of that in Zambia.