The wind of change that swept through the world with the fall of communism carried Zambia briefly to centre stage. The country was hailed as one of Africa's new dynamic democracies when it reintroduced multi-party politics in 1991 after 27 years of domineering one-party rule by the man who had led it to independence from Britain, Kenneth Kaunda. Like all the other African leaders who emerged at that time, Frederick Chiluba and his Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) represented a change from the left-leaning old guard, promising economic liberalization and political reform.
Over the next 10 years the euphoria died and Zambia all but disappeared from the map, mired in foreign debt, the hiv/aids death toll, allegations of corruption, electoral fraud, human-rights abuses - in effect, all the negatives routinely associated with Africa.
Protest grew as people's suffering worsened. The manufacturing sector collapsed as the uncontrolled liberalization of the economy led to a flood of cheap foreign goods. Privatization and its ensuing retrenchments brought mass unemployment. The sale of the copper mines left Zambia with no alternative means of earning foreign exchange - yet the tottering economy still had to service a foreign debt of over seven billion dollars. All of this aggravated people who blamed government theft and mismanagement for their sufferings.
Photo: Gary-John Norman / Panos Pictures
Allegations of corruption have dogged the MMD Government for a long time. Foreign aid ceased at one point, for example, as the donor community insisted on good governance while Transparency International listed Zambia as the ninth most corrupt country in Africa. And it was concern at this that prompted President Chiluba, once he had failed to change the constitution that stopped him running for a third term, to flout MMD party procedures and anoint outsider Levy Mwanawasa as his successor. Mwanawasa was Vice-President in 1991 but resigned three years later citing corruption in high government circles. He remained an ordinary party member until Chiluba propelled him back into the limelight, his anti-corruption credentials being seen as the only chance of the MMD holding on to the presidency.
In December 2001 Mwanawasa duly won the election. The legality of the vote was hotly disputed - Anderson Mazoka of the United Party for National Democracy was widely believed to have won the election and is taking his case to the Supreme Court. But Mwanawasa has still managed to bounce Zambia back into the international spotlight. This is in part because he is a new leader promising a corruption-free government and all the other nice things the West likes to hear. But, more substantially, at Mwanawasa's instigation, the national parliament has removed the immunity of former President Chiluba so as to facilitate investigations of corruption and theft. This is unprecedented: it is the first time in African history that a surviving former president has undergone such official scrutiny.
Ironically it is believed that Mwanawasa made 'a gentleman's agreement' with Chiluba to protect him from prosecution if he won the presidency. Once in power, though, he did not have a choice: he had to convince the people and the donor community that he was not Chiluba's pawn and back up his anti-corruption rhetoric with deeds.
There is a mood of suspense, renewed hope and a sense of unity that has not been witnessed since 1991. Political parties were at loggerheads but have now joined hands not only to prosecute alleged thieves, but also to retrieve the plundered resources which must be ploughed back into Zambia's shattered economy. If Zambia succeeds, there is sure to be a domino effect in neighbouring Zimbabwe and Malawi whose leaders are hanging on to government amidst mass disillusion and charges of theft and corruption.
Leader: President Levy Mwanawasa.
Economy: Gross national income (GNI) per capita $300 (Zimbabwe $480, Britain $24,500).
Monetary unit: Zambian Kwacha
Main exports: Copper, cobalt, tobacco, textiles and electricity. There is some revenue now coming in from tourism but still not in significant amounts.
People: 10.4 million. People per square kilometre 14 (Britain 238).
Health: Infant mortality 112 per 1,000 live births (Zimbabwe 73, Britain 6). The scale of the hiv/aids pandemic is alarming: an estimated 20% of adults are hiv-positive.
Environment: The current big issue is with the Anglo American Corporation which has pulled out of one of Zambia’s biggest deep mines and has refused to pay for environmental clean-up.
Culture: Zambia is a former British colony so retains much of its cultural influence. Recent moves to revive the dying indigenous cultures have met with little success. US-dominated cable/satellite television brings ‘Americanization’.
Religion: Zambia is basically Roman Catholic although under the Pentecostal Chiluba it was declared a ‘Christian nation’.
Language: The official language is English. There are 7 main indigenous languages and 73 dialects.
Sources: State of the World’s Children 2002, World Guide 2001/2002, Zambia Economic Report 2002.
Last profiled July 1992