Frederick Chiluba; Zambia's lessons for Zimbabwe

Jun 18, 2011

Former president of Zambia Frederick Chiluba has died. Apart from his having been a controversial politician in a neighbouring country, there are many other aspects of his rise and fall that are instructive for a Zimbabwe struggling to find a way to move beyond the rule of 'first-generation' leaders.

Zimbabwe got its independence in 1980, Zambia in 1964. There are many other ways in which Zimbabwe seems to be following in the footsteps of Zambia, for better and for worse.

Both countries began with strong, charismatic leaders who had played key roles in their countries' independence struggles against colonial ruler Britain, and both were initially much revered. Zambia's Kenneth Kaunda overstayed his welcome, becoming more repressive in order to stay in power as he lost his popularity over a sharply declining economy. When the pressures got too strong for him to continue resisting subjecting himself to an open election, the country's 'founding father' was humiliatingly defeated in 1991 after a 26 year run.

Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has been in power for 31 years, is 87 years old but desperately wants to continue, despite deep and widespread unhappiness over the condition of the country. 'Free and fair' election is the phrase he has come to fear most, but as in Kaunda's Zambia towards the end of his rule, the environment makes it very difficult to keep on 'engineering' election wins.

Kaunda lost an election  to a trade unionist, the Chiluba who died today. The man Mugabe loathes and who he fears is poised to take 'his' position in Zimbabwe is a former trade unionist, current prime minister Morgan Tsvangirai. The two for now co-exist in an unhappy coalition government.   

Chiluba was initially hailed as a messiah by Zambians relieved to be rid of Kaunda. But it did not take long for Chiluba to turn from political and economic reformer to despot. Fortunately by then Zambians, after Kaunda's 26 years rule, had learnt not to put too much stock in an individual leader. Helped by term limits which didn't exist in Kaunda's time, they were able to dispatch Chiluba out of the presidential palace after nine years, at the end of his second term.

In Zimbabwe Tsvangirai is seen as a largely powerless prime minister, with effective power still in Mugabe's hands. But there are worrying signs that there are some supporters of Tsvangirai's  who are so desperate for a new era beyond Mugabe's, that they see him in the same messianic terms as Zambians initially regarded Chiluba. This risks the country repeating the same mistake of over-veneration of a leader. This is one of the key reasons so many politicians who start off well quickly become despots: it is in part because the people they rule over make it so easy

In a social and cultural setting where the leader is flattered by 'his' people to think of himself as having becoming super-natural on assuming power, big-headedness quickly sets in. Even if there are formal constitutional means of checks and balances, where there is not a widespread practice of the citizens invoking them, despotism quickly takes root.

Kaunda pursued an economic policy of state-control and 'Zambianisation,' a deliberate policy of favoring the majority to have access to opportunities they had been locked out of before. Many things went wrong, compounded by the nose-diving of the global prices of copper, the commodity on which Zambia's economy disproportionately depended.

The ensuing economic crisis helped push out Kaunda and forced Zambia, now under Chiluba, to go to the IMF for help. That financial institution gave its loans with the same set of 'structural adjustment' conditions that have been painful and deeply unpopular almost everywhere they have been applied.

Many government programmes had to be cut, various subsidies were phased out, many state enterprises were controversially sold to foreign investors. But none of these 'adjustments' really helped to kick start the economy, instead increasing the economic pain and political discontent. 

For different reasons, Zimbabwe has also gone through several phases of economic crisis. It has had its own unhappy experience with structural adjustment according to the IMF and currently owes it billions of dollars in outstanding loans.

The Mugabe government many years ago suspended the IMF 'adjustment' because of its failure to arrest the immediate problems and because of how deeply unpopular it was. So Zimbabwe has not had the Zambian experience of widespread privatisations; the Mugabe government so far preferring to keep a tight rein even on the many under-performing state companies. Selected privatisations are being contemplated now, but this is outside the ambit of the kind of 'IMF fire sale' of its state-controlled companies that Chiluba embarked on in Zambia.

While it is unlikely there will be widespread privatisations under Mugabe for ideological reasons, the situation could be quite different and more Chiluba-like under a Tsvangirai presidency, whose party subscribes to a more Western-orthodox free market economic ideology.

But would the lessons of Zambia be carefully heeded in this regard? Or would there be such a rush for a Tsvangirai persidency to be seen as clearly being 'anti-Mugabe' that there would be a Chiluba-after-Kaunda recklessness to institute policies that may be clearly 'different,' but that might not address the problems of increased production, earnings, employment and overall 'development.' Zambia has been on a long path of political and economic self-correction, learning from its mistakes as it goes along. Zimbabwe is much farther behind in both respects.

Zimbabwe has had a culture of institutional violence stretching into its distant colonial past in a way Zambia never had. The long pre-independence imprisonment of Mugabe and his lieutenants and the bitter war for independence have and continue to deeply affect the tenor of the country's politics. Failure to find a way to resolve the generational resentments over forced colonial land dispossession, general brutality and dehumanisations of the colonial experience and the war that ended it has meant that Mugabe's government is today accused of many of the same brutal methods of exercising power as the government that they deposed.

The MDC opposition movement that first took firm hold about 10 years ago has been treated as enemies of the state, all the old colonial methods of repression brought to bear against them. This almost guarantees a generational cycle of counter-reprisals when a new group gains power.          

Zambia has experienced this in its change of power from one party to another. On coming into power, Chiluba gave Kaunda a torrid time of harassment. It is thought Chiluba had long harboured resentment at having been once jailed for his trade union activities during Kaunda's time.

In Zimbabwe, then opposition leader Tsvangirai and many of his officials were also subjected to beatings, imprisonment and public humiliation at the hands of Mugabe's government. Even now as coalition members under Mugabe's presidency, Tsvangirai's party members complain of being under continued harassment and persecution.

It is not at all far-fetched to think that should they ascend to wielding unshared power, Tsvangirai's people will have scores to settle with those they perceive to have denied them their civil and political rights, continuing a vicious cycle that Zimbabwe has found difficult to arrest.  

Since the days of Kaunda and then of Chiluba Zambia seems to have found a middle ground of  political and economic stability, although many of the structural problems that plague most African countries remain. Apart from being a younger nation, Zimbabwe has had a pre and post-independence political history which so far has made it much harder for it to achieve the political maturity and general overall serenity that Zambia enjoys.  

It may be that Tsvangirai will not have the opportunity to electorally depose Mugabe as Chiluba did Kaunda. But at 87, it is obvious that Mugabe's days are numbered and that however it happens, some kind of significant political transition is in Zimbabwe's near future. Because it will have some of the elements of Zambia's shift from the first independence-era leader to the second, what the late Chiluba did and didn't do will have particular significance for a Zimbabwe struggling with its own transition.

The Zimbabwe Review


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