Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa died in a French hospital on August 19, nearly two months after he was admitted as a result of suffering a stroke.
Mwanawasa’s death has dealt a double blow to Southern Africa, not only generating fears of possible political instability in Zambia but also concern about the impact on the process of finding a solution in Zimbabwe.
Mwanawasa lacked charisma, wit and style. At rallies even his own supporters were fast bored by the former lawyer’s monotone drawl. His ill-health and slurred speech, the results of a car crash, led to nasty jibes about his mental capacity.
When he narrowly won his first, disputed, presidential election in 2001, opponents dubbed him “the cabbage”, deriding him as a stooge for others more powerful. On paper he ought never to have been president.
But off paper and in reality Mwanawasa made strides to fight corruption, secured healthy economic growth and kept politics clean. Debt was cancelled; aid and investment poured in.
At some political risk, Mwanawasa turned against his predecessor and one-time patron, Frederick Chiluba, who was charged with 168 counts of theft.
Chiluba was convicted of graft in a civil court in London last year. It was a rare success: few African leaders have been held to such account.
Mwanawasa was an outspoken critic of Mugabe, and once likened Zimbabwe to a “sinking titanic”.
Describing Mwanawasa as a “good friend and comrade”, the leader of Zimbabwe’s opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), Morgan Tsvangirai, said he had “left us at this most trying time”.
Under the current constitution, which is under review, Zambians will have to head for fresh polls within 90 days.
As we bid farewell to Mwanawasa, let’s hope his rather dull shoes can be appropriately filled and that Zambia can plod on.