Mwanawasa, a leader to remember!


By Sishuwa Sishuwa

What has largely determined the legacy of successive presidents in Zambia – except Kenneth Kaunda’s – is their attitude towards corruption. Zambians love, trust, and respect a national leader who shows clear or demonstrable will to fight past and especially present corruption, to deal decisively with the corruption of their officials or associates including those in the inner circle. This is what sets Levy Patrick Mwanawasa apart. A decade and half years after his death on 19 August 2008, Mwanawasa is still fondly remembered by many as the best President of Zambia since 1991. Here is his full story.

On 19 August 2008, Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, the third President of Zambia, died in a French hospital after reportedly suffering a stroke. Fifteen years later, Mwanawasa remains as vivid in death as he was in public life. He is widely regarded as one of Zambia’s most effective leaders, who secured debt relief, steered the country through a period of sustained economic growth, promoted constitutionalism and the rule of law, and consolidated the country’s democratic tradition.

Although many people know him as president, the presidency was simply the ultimate platform on which Mwanawasa enacted important values whose origin lay in his early life, and which define his legacy. These include the importance of family and community, a deep love for learning and growing, capacity for effective and selfless leadership, loyalty to principle, moral force of character, faith in one’s fellow human being, and the proactive use of the law as a shield for the weak and ordinary citizen and not as a sword for the elite and the powerful. Throughout his life, Mwanawasa consistently gave expression to these ideals, starting with his formative years.

Birth and early years

The second born in a family of six, Mwanawasa was born on 3 September 1948 in the mining town of Mufulira on the Copperbelt. His parents were Myria Mokola and Patrick Chipokota Mayamba Mwanawasa, who was working as a domestic employee to a mine captain before he later established himself as a successful businessman. Mwanawasa went to Arusha Primary School in Luanshya in 1958. He then attended Fiwale Mission school before proceeding to Chiwala Secondary in Ndola, where his leadership qualities were first noticed by the school authorities who appointed him Head Boy in 1969, the year when he completed Grade 12.

While at Chiwala, an English lawyer, Jack Dare, and Julius Sakala, the first black Town Clerk of Ndola City Council, came to the school to give lectures on career choices. It was these talks that greatly influenced the career of Mwanawasa. His former schoolteachers, according to Amos Malupenga’s book, Levy Patrick Mwanawasa: An Incentive for Posterity, recalled an ambitious young man who told them that he wanted to become “a big solicitor to serve people”.

A student leader

After completing secondary education, Mwanawasa joined Ndola City Council as a trainee cadet under the leadership of Sakala, the Town Clerk who would later go on to become a distinguished member of the Zambian bar. Impressed with his hard work and keen to buttress its legal department, the council sponsored Mwanawasa to study law at the University of Zambia (UNZA) in 1970 where he graduated with a Bachelor of Laws degree three years later.

While studying at UNZA, Mwanawasa’s leadership qualities were further developed when he was elected Vice-President of the University of Zambia Students Union (UNZASU), a platform that gave him an early opportunity to hone his political skills and appreciate the importance of fostering competitive democracy. His UNZASU executive negotiated for the introduction of the National Youth Service initiative, a six-month military-like training programme that saw school leavers and university students taught various skills aimed at instilling discipline, fostering national unity, building patriotism, and enhancing their occupational abilities.

A leading lawyer

Following his completion of legal studies, which included passing the qualifying courses at the Legal Practice Institute (now known as the Zambia Institute for Advanced Legal Education – ZIALE) at first attempt, Mwanawasa worked as an assistant at Jacques and Partners, a prominent private law firm under the leadership of distinguished lawyers like John Mwanakatwe and Willa Mung’omba. He remained at the firm from 1975 to 1978 when he formed his own law practice, Mwanawasa and Company.

The development of his leadership qualities was given another boost when he was elected as vice-president of the Law Association of Zambia in 1982. President Kenneth Kaunda noted Mwanawasa’s growing profile and, seeking to utilise his talents for wider public good, appointed him as Solicitor General in 1985. The two however differed over what Mwanawasa characterised as the practice of detaining people without trial, prompting the President to dismiss him a year later.

Mwanawasa’s star rose sharply over the course of the 1980s, developing from a young advocate to a leading lawyer who successfully defended prominent dissidents of one-party rule and high-profile suspects like then Zambia Congress of Trade Union (ZCTU) Chairman-General Frederick Chiluba and treason-accused former army commander, Lieutenant General Christon Tembo.

A pro-democracy leader

After 17 years of one-party rule, calls for the re-introduction of multiparty politics gained considerable momentum in the second quarter of 1990. The two prime organisers were Akashambatwa Mbikusita-Lewanika, then chairperson of the Economics Association of Zambia, and Mbita Chitala, who, on 20 July that year, established the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) as a pressure group to campaign for the return of multiparty democracy in a forthcoming referendum. Other notable figures who were present at the MMD’s founding meeting at Garden House in Lusaka included Edith Nawakwi, Muna Ndulo, Fred M’membe, Baldwin Nkumbula, Simon Zukas, Katele Kalumba, Arthur Wina (who was chosen as the leader of the interim national committee), Chiluba (operations and mobilisation chairperson), and Vernon Mwaanga (information and publicity chairperson). Mwanawasa was elected in absentia as MMD chairperson for the legal committee, but he flatly rejected the honour, unhappy that he was not consulted. After great persuasion from his wife, Maureen Kakubo, he reluctantly accepted and went on to offer free legal services to the civil society organisation.

In September 1990, President Kaunda cancelled the referendum and subsequently signed the law that paved the way for the creation of more political parties other than the governing United National Independence Party (UNIP). The MMD transformed itself into a political party on 4 January 1991. At the party’s inaugural convention in February 1991, Mwanawasa, in another public show of confidence in his leadership qualities, was elected MMD vice-president with 63.3 percent of support, defeating Nkumbula and Tembo. Of particular importance was that he had initially refused to stand for any position, declaring that “I want to go back to my practice because we have achieved what we wanted. Dr Kenneth Kaunda has agreed to revert to multiparty democracy and to me that is an achievement, so I want to go back to my practice.”

It took other people, mainly a group of educated and reform-minded professionals such as Kalumba, Dean Mung’omba, Robert Sichinga, Mathias Mpande, Gilbert Mudenda and Chitala, who, in recognition of his impressive character traits, persuaded him to change his mind and put forward his name for election. As Akashambatwa Mbikusita-Lewanika recalled in Malupenga’s book, “we put forward Levy Mwanawasa as our candidate for the vice-presidency. He did not propose his name. We thought if the MMD’s dreams had to be realised, a grouping of individuals of that character was necessary. We were saying if UNIP was dictatorial, then we needed to be more democratic. We wanted a leadership that was different from the past.” Chiluba, overcoming competition from three others, was elected party president.

Earlier, President Kaunda, responding to popular demands for an early election, had cut short his five-year term, which was due to end in 1993, and set general elections for October 1991. The MMD, featuring as the main opposition challenger, went on to defeat UNIP in an election that saw Mwanawasa elected as member of parliament for Chifubu constituency in Ndola. Chiluba, the party’s presidential candidate, defeated Kaunda and, after he took office on 2 November, named a Cabinet that included Mwanawasa as Zambia’s vice-president.

The vice-president who resigned on principle

On 8 December 1991, barely a month in power, Mwanawasa was involved in a road traffic accident after his vice-presidential motorcade collided with another car that was driven by Godwin Chirwa, an official from State House and a designated driver of the then First Lady. The cause of the accident was inconclusive. A Commission of Inquiry that was appointed to investigate the issue found that Chirwa was in a drunken stupor when the mishap happened. Unfortunately, Chirwa himself was found dead in unclear circumstances four days before he was due to give testimony in court about the cause of the accident. As well as claiming the life of Mwanawasa’s aide-de-camp, Brown Mwale, the accident left the vice-president with severe injuries that required specialised treatment in South Africa.

Mwanawasa continued to serve as vice-president until 3 July 1994 when he resigned his Cabinet position in protest against growing levels of corruption in government and the lack of transparency and accountability. “It is not often that a vice-president of a country resigns,” Mwanawasa wrote in his letter of resignation to President Chiluba, but “if my resignation will serve to shake this government into realising the implication of the behaviour of some of our ministers, which basically goes unpunished, my action will have served a useful purpose to our party and this nation.” He retained his MMD membership and parliamentary seat.

In December 1995, the former vice-president unsuccessfully challenged president Chiluba for the leadership of the MMD before he chose not to defend his parliamentary seat in the 1996 elections. He retired from active politics that year and returned to private law practice, where he remained successful over the course of the 1990s.

In July 2001, following the collapse of President Chiluba’s third term bid, Mwanawasa learnt that Chiluba was considering nominating him as his successor and immediately set out to reject the plans. “When I received information that the MMD wanted to have me as their presidential candidate”, Mwanawasa is quoted as saying in Malupenga’s book, “I went to see Dr Chiluba and said ‘I hear that this is what is being contemplated, but I am not interested. If the party needs any opinion from me, I am able to offer that, but I am not interested in party politics’.” It took over a week of persuasion to convince him to change his mind and accept the invitation. Influenced by Chiluba, the MMD National Executive Committee subsequently elected Mwanawasa as the party’s presidential candidate. In this intra-party poll, he defeated then Vice-President Enoch Kavindele, MMD National Secretary Michael Sata, Minister of Presidential Affairs Eric Silwamba, former Minister of Finance Emmanuel Kasonde, and Minister of Defence Chitalu Sampa.

A champion of good governance, democracy, and economic reform

Mwanawasa took office as President of Zambia in January 2002 after defeating ten other candidates in the 27 December 2001 election. He immediately set out a clear vision for his presidency in a mission statement where he pledged to “provide continuity with change. In the interest of our Nation, Zambia, and the common good, sacrificing all and expecting little in return, I wholeheartedly commit myself…to serve Zambia and Zambians to the best of my ability with loyalty, honour and integrity with all my heart and strength, with love and justice, with consideration and compassion, with commitment and dedication and in collaboration with all stakeholders, women and men of goodwill, to give fresh hope to our people, to create opportunities for all and bring honour, dignity and prosperity to our country, through honest selfless hard work above and beyond the normal call of duty.”

Over the course of the next five years, Mwanawasa, in another move that demonstrates the meaning of competent leadership, put together the right subordinates with the required knowledge, skills, discipline and judgement to help him achieve or bring about the desired results. For instance, he appointed to public office principled and talented individuals such as N’gandu Magande (arguably Zambia’s best Minister of Finance), Caleb Fundanga (Bank of Zambia Governor), Mundia Sikatana (Minister of Agriculture) and Mumba Malila (Attorney General). Mwanawasa also carefully ensured that his appointments to public office reflected the ethnic diversity of the country. Tongas, Bembas, Chewas, Kaondes, Lozis, Lundas and Luvales all found room in his Cabinet. This commitment to fostering a sense of national inclusion was further shown in his choice of the four different individuals he appointed to the position of Vice President of Zambia, starting with Enoch Kavindele in 2002, followed by Nevers Mumba in May 2003, Lupando Mwape in October 2004, and Rupiah Banda, who replaced Mwape after the latter lost his parliamentary seat in the 2006 general election. Such a high turnover of vice presidents demonstrated the willingness of President Mwanawasa to take responsibility whenever required and nurture alternative leaders by exposing them to positions of greater responsibility.

In addition to rehabilitating, maintaining, and building new public infrastructure, with clear project selection and high priority investments, Mwanawasa’s government also instituted a number of important policy reforms such as decentralisation and an anti-corruption campaign that saw the prosecution of several former government figures, including his predecessor.

Mwanawasa inherited a poorly performing economy. Among the issues that he had to grapple with was the mass unemployment that had resulted from redundancies from privatisation and the liquidation and closure of over 250 state enterprises. Others were soaring inflation, high interest rates and the devastating consequences of the January 2002 decision by Anglo-American Corporation to pull out of Zambia’s mining industry due to the declining price of copper, the country’s biggest export earner. The government’s attempts to reverse the economic decline were severely undermined by a staggering external debt amounting to US$6 billion, which condemned Zambia to the classification of a Highly Indebted Poor Country. Under the leadership of Mwanawasa, the MMD moved to revive the economy in three main ways.

First, his government prioritised food security by enhancing its support to agriculture. For instance, Mwanawasa made the Farmer Input Support Program (formerly the Fertiliser Support Program) a cornerstone of Zambia’s agricultural policy, one that helped to increase private sector participation in agricultural input markets and improve household food security. He also launched the winter maize project, which turned out to be a success in addressing critical food shortage especially after he rejected the importation of genetically modified maize consignments from the United States of America on the grounds that the food could be harmful to human beings and the environment.

Second, Mwanawasa’s administration resuscitated the mining industry, which had been in freefall since the 1970s, by bringing new investors mainly from Canada, Europe, and China. As well as generating significant revenue in form of taxes for the government, the move led to job creation and the revival of the industrial Copperbelt.

Third, in an effort to qualify for debt relief as prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, Mwanawasa presided over the implementation of deeply unpopular but necessary austerity measures, including a one-year wage freeze on civil servants’ salaries, a significant increase in taxes, a halt in hiring public service labour and reduced funding to social services.

While the President defended the implementation of the new structural adjustment policies as essential to economic recovery, the opposition, led by the Patriotic Front (PF)’s Michael Sata, cited them as evidence of a government that was unresponsive to the concerns of urbanites and promised to deliver (without explaining how) better working conditions such as “lower taxes, more jobs and more money” in people’s pockets. The net result of Mwanawasa’s policies was the near-total cancellation of Zambia’s foreign debt in 2005. The considerable resources freed from debt repayments enabled the government to tackle unemployment and invest in key social sectors such as education, agriculture, and health.

Another area that became the focus of the government under Mwanawasa was constitutional reform. In 2003, he worked with civil society to constitute a broadly representative Constitution Review Commission (CRC), headed by Willa Mung’omba, that was tasked to collect views from the public for constitutional amendment and recommend the best mode of adopting the new constitution. The CRC completed its work in 2005, but the constitutional reform process was not concluded until after President Mwanawasa’s death.

Mwanawasa’s first term was however not without its challenges. For instance, his 2001 victory was the subject of an election petition that dragged on until February 2005 when the Supreme Court dismissed it. Lacking a clear majority in parliament, Mwanawasa sought to address the problem by co-opting into Cabinet several articulate opposition MPs such as Sylvia Masebo and Dipak Patel, consequently earning criticism that he was undermining the capacity of the opposition to control the already dominant executive and modify its policy proposals. The nomination of Mumba, a losing presidential candidate in the 2001 elections, to the position of Vice-President attracted the ire of the then main opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), which argued that the move violated the constitution’s prohibition of any person being appointed to the National Assembly if they had been a candidate in the preceding general election. In view of this, the UPND moved an impeachment motion against Mwanawasa, one that he survived in August 2003 after members of parliament voted 92-57 against it.

His leadership of the MMD was also tenuous and it was not until July 2005 that he was elected party president, having occupied the position in an acting capacity since 2002. In addition, the attempted deportation of Post newspaper satirist Roy Clarke in January 2004, on the allegation that the white British national who had lived in Zambia since 1962 had insulted the President and his ministers, attracted criticism that Mwanawasa was trying to undermine free speech. In a show of judicial independence that was characteristic of Mwanawasa’s presidency, the High Court quashed the deportation order of the then Minister of Home Affairs, Ronnie Shikapwasha. Notwithstanding the Clarke incident, Mwanawasa remained mostly supportive of media freedom, tolerated political debate, and refused to curtail the mobilisation activities of opposition parties and civil society.

On a personal level, Mwanawasa radiated elegance and grace, basic rectitude, authentic love for family (even in its extended structure), care and respect for the dignity of others, and wisdom in judgement. Together with Maureen, he raised his children well and taught them never to be corrupt or extend their hands to public coffers. Despite his demanding public office commitments, Mwanawasa made time for his wife, children, and best friends, showing by example that family and community are at the core of our lives than, say, wealth and status. Tragedy also occasionally befell him. He suffered a minor stroke in April 2006, two months before his mother died in June. The President recovered and won a second term in September 2006. He continued with many of the progressive reforms that he had initiated in his first term in office, centred on service delivery, spearheading economic reform, enhancing food security, creating more jobs, supporting the fight against corruption, and the promotion of good governance, constitutionalism, and the rule of law.

When Sata, who had been at loggerheads with the president since their time in the MMD in the early 1990s, suffered a heart attack in April 2008, Mwanawasa, consistent with his pledge to serve Zambians with selflessness, sacrificed his qualified personal dislike for Sata to further the leadership ideals that underpinned his presidency. In a move that demonstrated his humanity, he ordered that his main rival be evacuated to South Africa for specialist treatment. Mwanawasa later explained why he took the decision in a response that revealed his clear appreciation of the role of opposition parties in a competitive multiparty democracy and the benefits that accrue to those in power when they are receptive to criticism. Without such an effective opposition politician as Sata, Mwanawasa suggested, both his leadership and Zambia would have been poorer for it.

“If you had asked me before [Sata suffered a heart attack], I would have told you that I don’t like this person. I don’t even like to hear his voice. That is how much I detested this man because he was maliciously making my job difficult to govern this country. But the news of his illness gripped me with sadness. I realised just how much I needed him. To be President, I do not want to be hero-worshipped all the time. I want people who can correct me, show me that the best it is done would be this way. Of course, if I do not agree, I will tell them that I do not agree for this and this reason. So, I realised just how much I need him around. He is a good fellow to have around,”, Mwanawasa told the media at a press briefing that was also attended by the recovered PF leader, who thanked him for his magnanimity.

Death and the address to Zambians from the grave

On 29 June 2008, President Mwanawasa left Zambia to attend the African Union Heads of State and Government Ordinary Summit in Egypt. Later that day, Mwanawasa was reported to have suffered a major stroke that left him in a critical condition. He was subsequently flown to Percy Military Hospital in France for treatment but died on 19 August 2008, aged 59, following what was said to be complications arising from the stroke. President Mwanawasa was put to rest on 3 September 2008.

Addressing Zambia from the grave, in a pre-recorded video statement of farewell dated 23 March 2005 that was broadcast on national television, Mwanawasa stressed the values that guided his public life. Expressing gratitude for the opportunities that fell his way and displaying the profound awareness, decency and firm moral compass that were characteristic of his deep sense of self-identity, the address implored future governments to especially fight corruption and is worth quoting at length:

“I am grateful to all of you, for giving me the opportunity during part of my life to serve you as President. It was a privilege which I cherished up to my death. I did all my best to improve the standards of living of you my people. I strove to attend to the production of sufficient food for domestic consumption and for export. I worked hard to encourage investments, both local and foreign, so as to create jobs and so as to enhance the growth of our economy.

“I believed that national development could only be sustained if good governance, respect for the rule of law and democracy were encouraged and not taken for granted. To spur these virtues, the fight against corruption had to be waged relentlessly and without treating anybody as a sacred cow. I regret that in my zeal to facilitate this fight, I lost friendship with a number of some of my best friends and at many times my own life and that of my family members were threatened. I want to assure the nation that no malice or ill will was intended in these initiatives.

“I was driven purely by love for my country and the urgent need to transform it from poverty to prosperity. I have always been grieved to see so much poverty, hopelessness and anguish in the faces of our children, the leaders of tomorrow. It has always been my belief that nobody has the right to take away what we should be giving to these children and keep them in their selfish pockets. I do hope that the party, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, can continue with this vision for our nation pursuing the fight of zero tolerance to corruption.

“I was sad when some of you our members appeared to embrace corruption and actually criticized me for fighting the scourge. This vice will not develop our country. It is my desire that all future governments will continue to wage this fight. If in my endeavours to provide only the best for my country I offended some of my compatriots, all I can ask is that they should find a place in their hearts to forgive me as no deliberate intentions to harm their feelings without just cause was intended.

“To those who attended my funeral and to those who mourned with my family, I say I am extremely grateful to all of you. I am certain that I speak on behalf of my family that their burden has thereby been lightened.”

I miss Levy Mwanawasa. He was a damn good president, who demonstrated that leadership matters and embodied the ethos of basic integrity, soundness in decision-making process, a resilient sense of optimism, and respect for one another’s humanity. Constantly rising above partisan considerations and providing decisive leadership, Mwanawasa ended the culture of political violence by party cadres and the humiliating practice of lining up women to dance and welcome the President at airports.

Ministers accused of corruption were dismissed even before the public complained and subsequently prosecuted. While he saw himself primarily as a lawyer, many Zambians fondly remember Mwanawasa as the President of Zambia that the present demands, a good foot soldier for justice and freedom, and one of the country’s genuine post-independence heroes, whose leadership was anchored on the promotion of ethical values and social justice.

NOTE: Sishuwa Sishuwa is a Zambian writer, historian, and senior lecturer at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.

Kalemba August 19, 2023


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