|In a surprising Twist of Fate, Frederick Chiluba finally gets a magistrate's acquittal in the high-profile corruption case about serious criminal charges many Zambians had hoped he would be convicted on and sent to jail for. Was this a fair ruling and how could it impact the future of the fight against high-level corruption in Zambia?|
For many attentive Zambians, the shocking news this week has been that ex-President Frederick Jacob Titus Chiluba, a man accused of gross corruption on multiple counts committed while he was in office, financial embezzlement, misuse of state funds etc., and in fact convicted by a London court for more or less the same (or related) offences only last year, has been cleared by a Zambian magistrates court of all criminal charges levelled against him by the Director-General of Zambia.
This has been a long, "duelling" contest that has definitely cost tens of billions of tax-payers' money since it was began in mid-2002, a few months after Mr. Chiluba had vacated the presidency in late 2001. Interestingly, Chiluba's co-accused, Faustin Kabwe and Aaron Chungu, have each been convicted to 3-year imprisonment terms.
Magistrates registrar Judge Jones Chinyama took more than 6 hours delivering the verdict, laboriously working his way through his prepared 445-page judgement script in that final round of the government's case against Mr. Chiluba.
How come? Was that just? What next now, and what implications will this ruling have on the fight against high-level corruption in Zambia, public confidence in the Zambian judicial system in the eyes of many? Some of us have also wondered: What would late president Levy Mwanawasa think today, even about the attitudes and remarks of his hand-picked successor Rupiah Banda concerning this issue?
For once, it is important to note that Frederick Chiluba is vilified by many average Zambians as the man who, starting just 18 years ago, mechanically and very carelessly pawned off their pre-1991 modest but secure livelihoods through his chaotic and dubious, if not deliberate, mass sell-offs of state/ public property. It is generally believed that Mr. Chiluba engineered the massive fast-track sale of property such as the rich mines, parastatals and housing infrastructure purportedly at give-away prices through back-room, under-the-table deals. Yet he at the same time sang songs of promise about better economic days in the making to the ears of desperate Zambians. By that time, millions of Zambians had become fed up of the stagnant 27-year Kaunda presidency and many wanted change. Not surprisingly, none of that promised change ever came—so far. These had been just the usual campaign tricks we all hear each day everywhere in the world of politics. In fact, most people lost.
Mwanawasa started the fight against Chiluba's alleged network of theft and corruption in a very courageous and dignified manner that many people admired in Zambia, Africa and (we assume) all over the world, when he revealed Chiluba's alleged reckless acts of theft at a session in parliament. In fact, he was hailed as a hero in the small Zambian blogosphere that existed at that time. Chiluba's alleged misuse of state funds through, for example, opening an illegal bank account with government money and falsified details, masking it as a government one, then repeatedly funnelling large amounts of foreign currency money from it via a London law firm to finance his children's expenses and gifts for himself, his lover-girlfriend etc., allegedly to confuse Zambians in the twisted trail, was disgusting to most poor but at least intelligent Zambians.
Through it all, Chiluba has come to be commonly known as the most corrupt Zambian president ever, even if Zambia has only had 4 presidents so far and he was only the second. In fact, to this writer's knowledge, many Zambians still openly call Chiluba a "thief" and in fact already judged the man a long time ago. So, therefore, one wonders how his acquittal can sit well with his wife's and co-accused's conviction this year on more or less the same (or related) charges, on the one hand, and with Chiluba's own conviction by a London magistrates court last year on more or less the same (or related) charges, on the other. In the London ruling that many hailed as a landmark and Chiluba dismissed as a neo-colonial and racist sham, the London court found Chiluba guilty of plundering a total of (about) £23 million. The same court "fined" him I think that same amount as a theft penalty. The court, in its ruling, detailed Chiluba's excesses in expenditures for tailor-made suits, large monies deliberately unaccounted for or whose records were falsified, and the abnormal numbers of his designer shirts, shoes, suits, ties, jackets, etc. plus other material goods and accessories he was said to have rapidly acquired after becoming president in 1991. An article on that ruling in the Times Online (of London), aptly titled "President who frittered £600,000 on clothes as his people starved", made disturbing revelations. The article may sound like all only hot air, but even if all this isn't even smoke, there would nevertheless surely have to be a fire somewhere:
|... He used the stolen money to indulge his taste for clothes, jewellery, cars, luxury homes and handmade high-heeled shoes to boost his 5ft height ...|
Chiluba spent at least £600,000 on designer clothes bearing his FJT monogram, representing his names Frederick Jacob Titus, Mr Justice Peter Smith said after a two-year legal battle and a four-month trial. "The most telling example of corruption," he said, "was the clothing acquired by FJT".
The former President "had a worldwide reputation as being a smart and expensive dresser. He had his own stylish suits with his initials, FJT, monogrammed on them, a large number of specially made signature shoes and thousands of monogrammed shirts."
During Chiluba's ten years in office, from 1991 to 2001, £600,000 was spent at Basile, an exclusive Swiss clothes shop, all of which was stolen from the republic.
The amount of clothing seized by the anti-corruption task force set up by his successor, President Mwanawasa, in 2002 was "considerable", the judge said. "First there were 349 shirts. A large number of these bore the FJT monogram on them and they were from virtually every designer outlet.
"Second, there were 206 jackets and suits. A large number of these were from Basile, bearing the FJT monogram.
"Third, there were 72 pairs of shoes. A large number of these were made by Basile with the FJT logo. All were for Chiluba's unique personal specification high heels. Many of them were in their original shoe covers and had not been used."
This extravagant spending came at a time "when the vast majority of Zambians were struggling to live on 50p a day and many could not afford more than one meal a day", the judge said.
Much of the stolen money was unaccounted for, but was shared out to government officials by Chiluba.
The judge said: "The most serious revelation in this case is the cynical and unjustified misappropriation of funds for the private purposes of government officials."
He added: "The people of Zambia should know that whenever he appears in public wearing some of these clothes, he acquired them with money stolen from them. He was the President at the top of the control of government finances. He was uniquely positioned to prevent any corruption. Instead of preventing corruption, he actively participated in it and ensured it happened. It is a shameful series of actions and he should be ashamed."
Chiluba took no part in the claims brought against him in London by the Attorney-General of Zambia on behalf of the Republic of Zambia. The judge said that he had been given "numerous opportunities to explain" himself to the Zambian people but had failed to do so.
He was paid just over £50,000 in salary during ten years in office and there was no evidence that he had the wealth to buy the clothes he owned. "It was simply stolen from the republic," the judge said.
Normally, this would be quite damaging for an ex-president, but apparently not for Chiluba or at least not in Zambia.
Another important issue to question, though, is how Mr. Chiluba could have comfortably financed the purchase of his expensive bungalow in Kabulonga, alongside his many shirts, shoes, suits and numerous expensive gifts for his then-girlfriend, now his wife convicted of connivance in these same offences that directly link back to Frederick Chiluba? In short, how did Chiluba, a man of modest tastes prior to his ascendancy to the presidency and in fact a Labour Union man, amass all that wealth within a fast space of just ten years after becoming a president?
In this regard, it is quite regrettable that Mr. Frederick Chiluba, self-anointed "Master Dribbler", was ever given the chance to be a president of Zambia, being the controversial and tragic figure that he has become. As for Judge Chinyama's controversial ruling—"controversial" at least in the sense of what this writer perceives as the average informed Zambian's take on this all—, it remains to be seen if this was the only RIGHT ruling to make in this high-profile case, or whether the outcome was fixed. That's a fair remark to make, considering the unprecedented weight and magnitude of the issues involved, the known facts, the protracted investigations, the convictions of Chiluba's co-accused, the conviction of Chiluba's own wife, and also considering that this is a case whose final day in court has been postponed 3 or 4 times in the last 2 months alone at the very last minute, as far as this writer remembers. Judicial hesitation? Why? ... And then to clear Mr. Chiluba of all those—(I suppose a total of 11)—really damaging charges, despite all the evidence we all know? Strange.
President Rupiah Banda has now spoken out his relief and announced he is "pleased that Zambians have accepted the ruling of the Judiciary" and reminded Zambians of the "many good things" Mr. Chiluba did for Zambia, but I think many Zambians will wonder whether the president's insensitive remarks speak for them at all and whether this judgement doesn't have any political, extra-judicial connections. They will perhaps also wonder where the country is headed in the fight against high-profile corruption committed by greedy politicians or those who abuse power over the people, and what late President Mwanawasa would think of the sorry state of the exemplary fight against corruption he so courageously started, with material PROOF in his hand, when he took office back in 2001.
Just what would the late Honourable Mwanawasa think of all this mess today?