Zambia’s Chiluba Dies: Lessons for Ghana’s Rawlings

Sun, 19 Jun 2011 Source: Bokor, Michael J. K.

By Dr. Michael J.K. Bokor

E-mail: mjbokor@yahoo.com

June 18, 2011

Zambia's first democratically elected President, Frederick Chiluba, has died at home at the age of 68. As reported by the BBC, the cause of his death is not known but he was known to have heart problems.

His death raises important lessons that I will use as another opportunity to counsel our former President, Jerry John Rawlings, to learn. I have on several occasions written opinion pieces to suggest that Rawlings’ failure to adjust to his post-Presidency situation is problematic, not only for the country but for himself too.

I have cautioned him not to think that he is ordained by God to carry the entire country on his shoulders and behave as if without him, the country will sink into the underworld of permanent darkness and torment. I have opined also that by convincing himself that he is the only pebble at the beach of Ghana politics, Rawlings has invested all his resources in Ghana politics, roaming the political landscape, and antagonizing everybody he considers as an obstacle.

By thrusting upon himself the cloak of a political Godfather, he is performing tasks that are outside his post-Presidency purview and creating needless animosity for himself and his household. He has failed to accept the fact that he is at the end of his wits in national politics and can’t be said to have any new idea to contribute for national development. He had almost 20 years to solve the major problems that have kept our country under-developed but can’t tell us that he did so.

He left office, solving some but leaving behind a lot that his successors have been grappling with ever since. If he couldn’t do so, it must be because of factors that I don’t think he can tackle today. He might be wise only after the fact but shouldn’t be deceived that he will be allowed back into the limelight, no matter how vigorously or adroitly he pushes his way through the political terrain.

My suggestions have made it abundantly clear to him that he has reached a point where by his own deeds and unguarded utterances, whatever he does or says now ends up eroding the gains that he made in the 19 years that he ruled the country with an iron fist. Now that he is out of reckoning, he will be better off if he knows his station and leaves the limelight to do what other former Presidents do before they pay their dues to Nature. He is expected to save his energy and resources to do things other than seeking to return to the political stable to do as he wishes.

I want to use the death of Zambia’s Chiluba as another opportunity to point out to Rawlings that however long a journey may be, it has an end. What he has travelled so far must be long and tortuous enough for him to look back on and say: “Enough is enough.” Then, he should save his time and energy for other ventures than the national politics that he has done since the age of 31 years (beginning with the failed May 15, 1979, mutiny).

Despite some obvious differences in their origin, depth, and extent, the political careers of both Chiluba and Rawlings have some parallels; hence, my choice of Chiluba’s experiences to reach out to Rawlings.


Both Rawlings and Chiluba have a humble origin. We know that Rawlings’ father was Scottish and his mother a petty trader and that Rawlings was a Flight-Lt. in the Ghana Armed Forces when he became Ghana’s Head of State at 31 years through the barrel of the gun on June 4, 1979—making himself the youngest-ever Head of State in Africa within that historical epoch. On his part, Chiluba was a former trade union leader and son of a copper miner.


Just as Rawlings’ entry into the political limelight from his obscure military status was hailed as a huge paradigm shift in national politics, Chiluba’s was too. Rawlings’ courageous stance against the rot of the day earned him accolades, including “Junior Jesus.” Being Zambia's first democratically elected President, Chiluba was also hailed a “liberator” by his supporters when he came to office in 1991 after 27 years of single-party Socialist rule.

Recognition for such a feat is politically significant because it goes to confirm the importance that the people attached to such moments in their countries’ political lives. Such accomplishments make it difficult to write both Rawlings and Chiluba off, even if some of their later acts of omission or commission present them in a somewhat different light.


Both Rawlings and Chiluba will be remembered for major reforms that they introduced into national politics. On his part, Rawlings’ reforms are evident at several levels in the system of local governance (District Assembly System) and the establishment of the 4th Republic, which is in its 19th year of stability. That’s a record to celebrate even if that system of constitutional democratic governance still has some rough edges to smooth before it provides the relief that Ghanaians anticipated at its institutionalization.

Other reforms undertaken by Rawlings have been either built on or modified by his successors. They are monuments that signify his determined efforts to move Ghana forward, even if he has been criticized for his inadequacies in many other areas. As a human being, he is not infallible, despite his own self-righteous public posturing to the contrary.

Paralleling the accomplishments of Rawlings, Zambia’s Chiluba also won praise for his economic and political reforms. He introduced many reforms which dismantled the restrictive policies of former President Kenneth Kaunda. Under him, Zambia was considered to be a model of African democracy and his presidency was welcomed in the West. He did some good things that Kenneth Kaunda couldn’t use his socialist approach to achieve for the country. That’s why he still has his support base intact despite the problems that dogged him and placed him on a collision course with his successor.


Rawlings’ long grips on power in Ghana, ruling at various times as a military officer (100 days as Chairman of the AFRC and 10 years as Chairman of the PNDC) and a civilian President (from January 7, 1993 to January 7, 2001) had its own implications. If for nothing at all, his posture in office indicated that he loved (and still loves) political power.

His strident retort to his opponents’ demand for him to hand over power is enough to confirm our claim. He had bluntly asked: “To whom?” and moved on to use grassroots political organizations to consolidate his position for what fetched him the mandate to rule on the ticket of the NDC in the first 8 years of the 4th Republic.

He is still actively involved in national politics, creating the impression that he is looking for ways to circumvent the constitutional constraint that bars him from a third term in office. He couldn’t manipulate the constitution to extend his rule beyond the two terms; but his conduct in the ongoing struggle for the NDC’s flagbearership for the 2012 elections suggests that he has something up his sleeves as he vigorously campaigns for his wife to replace the incumbent President, John Evans Atta Mills.

On the contrary, Mr. Chiluba directly took action to subvert the Zambian constitution in a bid to extend his tenure beyond the constitutionally mandated two terms. He attempted to alter the constitution to allow him to run for a third term in office in 2001, but stood down after huge public protests. This attempt to manipulate the constitution fetched him bitter enemies. Some of the problems that were to torment him in his post-Presidency life can be traced to such attempts at manipulation.


Rawlings hasn’t yet been nailed down on any charge of corruption. He has so far come clean because no one can provide any evidence to directly establish his abuse of office to amass wealth, although allegations to that effect are freely bandied about by his opponents. Lack of evidence gives him the benefit of the doubt to ride high on the principles of “probity and accountability” that undergird his political career.

Being left off the hook on that score doesn’t mean that Rawlings is free from concerns about troubling events associated with his rule. Human rights issues, especially the extra-judicial killings and excesses that characterized his administration are sordid reminders of the atrocities for which he is condemned. No amount of public apology or remorse has so far cleaned the slate for him.

Unlike Rawlings, however, Chiluba has had it tough in the hands of his opponents. He was accused of taking an authoritarian approach to his political opponents, firing those who criticized him and jailing outspoken journalists. He sowed the wind and was expected to reap the whirlwind, which he did.

His post-Presidency life was tormented in diverse ways. He was accused of embezzlement and turning a blind eye to corruption. These corruption allegations led to his prosecution in 2002 for alleged embezzlement, but he was acquitted after a six-year trial. In 2007, he was convicted of fraud by a London court and ordered to repay $58m in embezzled funds, but the ruling was not carried out by Zambia.

He spent his final years at his residence in Lusaka, confined by ill health and the confiscation of his passport by the authorities. His death ends it all for him—on a bad note, his gains easily erased from memory!


We can tell from the life of Mr. Chiluba that his post-Presidency life was haunted by the seeds that he had sown when he was in office. Fortunately for Rawlings, his successors have been very lenient in dealing with him, which seems to have emboldened him to persist in raising more dust. I daresay that if any drastic action is taken to prove to him that he is carrying his nuisance too far, his life will not be the same.

The basis for taking the fight to him is available. In one way or the other, he has by his own “diarrhoea of the mouth” made utterances that are substantial enough for investigation and consequent legal action to place him where he belongs. His conduct in the serial murder of women in 2000 and the Ya-Na murder case are just two of such instances.

Many others bordering on subversion (inciting the NDC’s foot-soldiers against the government, undermining the Presidency, and many more) can also be the basis for official action against him. His direct accusations of corruption against the Kufuor and Mills governments are others. If decisive action is taken to look for evidence to initiate any action against him, it will not be difficult to get.

Rawlings has already opened himself up for official action but the authorities seem not to be interested in taking him on. He needs to know that he has exposed his underbelly on numerous occasions and must not think that our leaders’ leniency is a weakness to be overstretched or perpetually abused with impunity.

This passing away of Chiluba and the accomplishments (or misdeeds) for which he will be remembered bring to mind what I perceive as a good food-for-thought that encapsulates useful lessons for someone like Rawlings to learn. However liberated and strong he may feel to roam about and step on toes, he can’t defy the laws of Nature.

As a human being, he is powerless before Nature. But he has every right and power to do what will make him be at peace with himself and others before Nature steps in to deal with him. Then, he will be fondly remembered when he pays his dues to Nature and depart this earth. He won’t take Ghana along with him when he dies and must know his station. Chiluba is now gone but Zambia will continue to exist!

Columnist: Bokor, Michael J. K.