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 2009-08-20 01:43 pm Back to NEWS
Why a controversial acquittal is good news for Africa

During Frederick Chiluba's rise from lowly bus conductor to president of Zambia, good fortune only deserted him once. That was when he ejected his wife, Vera, from State House after finding her engaged in conversation – nothing more – with a local businessman. Vera then took her revenge by joining a vociferous and ultimately successful campaign demanding her husband's resignation.

Mr Chiluba can rejoice this week that his fortunes have turned: the former president has been acquitted on six charges of theft. As a devout Christian, he gave God the credit for his exoneration and hailed the return of "the Almighty's" favour.

The ruling of the Lusaka magistrates' court is unequivocal and the former president is entitled to be considered innocent. But there is something odd about this verdict.

Mr Chiluba was cleared because the sums he spent on designer suits and platform-heeled shoes all came from private donations, intended for his private personal use, not from state funds. But what about the ethics of these "donations"? Did Mr Chiluba declare the largesse he received when he was president? Who were the donors – and what, if anything, did they get in return for their generosity?

The court's failure to answer these questions – and the puzzling omission of any charges other than straightforward theft – makes the whole business "confusing", to quote Transparency International.

Many Zambians will have been dismayed by the sight of Mr Chiluba, who was deeply unpopular for much of his 10-year rule, celebrating his courtroom victory.

But regardless of the merits of the case, Mr Chiluba's acquittal is good news. Africa is filled with leaders whose main purpose is to cling obstinately to high office: no less than eight of the continent's presidents have been in power for longer than 20 years.

Mr Chiluba tried to prolong his own rule by trying to remove term limits from Zambia's Constitution. In other countries, notably Uganda, incumbent presidents have got away with this dodge.

It says much about Zambia's democratic spirit – and the country's long tradition of peaceful politics – that Mr Chiluba failed. After the president's feisty second wife signed up to a national campaign urging her husband to stop tinkering with the constitution and resign, he duly left office in January 2002.

One of the main reasons why African leaders try to die in harness is they fear persecution if they lose power. Hounding your predecessor is a perk of the job that few African presidents can resist; indeed the tradition has been taken so far that former leaders who live peacefully in their own countries, as opposed to spending the rest of their days in obscure exile, are rare birds indeed.

Hence the importance of Mr Chiluba's acquittal. The fact that he has escaped jail, and may now be able to live in Zambia undisturbed, could serve as reassurance to other leaders contemplating whether to stand down. Losing office may not necessarily entail personal disaster.

The Department for International Development, which spends millions on promoting "good governance" in Africa, tries to measure what this concept means. Let me offer a new indicator: the number of retired presidents living peacefully within a country's borders is a crucial sign of whether it is well governed. Zambia does pretty well on the "ageing ex-presidents living in peace and not being persecuted" scale. Mr Chiluba is joined in retirement by the man he defeated: Kenneth Kaunda, 85-year-old independence leader, who still lives in Lusaka 18 years after losing an election and stepping down with dignity – a most unusual combination.

At the other end of the scale is neighbouring Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe is the only leader the luckless country has endured since independence 29 years ago. If he loses office without dying first, it would be hugely tempting to heap on Mr Mugabe a fraction of the suffering he inflicted on so many innocent people.

No one more richly deserves a good dose of persecution. But even in Mr Mugabe's extreme case, it would still be wrong. In the end, African leaders will only leave office if they can be assured of a safe and dignified retirement.

Every day the long-serving kleptocrats spend in power inflicts more damage on their countries, so getting them to step down is more important than anything else.

This should even take precedence over natural justice. So Zambians should take heart. In African politics, the spectacle of Mr Chiluba leaving court a free man is what passes for progress.

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