Former president Frederick Chiluba’s family, friends and compatriots who served in government under him gathered at the Mulungushi International Conference Centre last Sunday to honour his legacy and celebrate his life.
As anyone who knew the late president would expect, the memorial service had the unusual task of laundering his deeds while he ruled Zambia, more than they could sanctify his legacy. Why was this the case? It is because a legacy is earned and not declared.
After Dr Kenneth Kaunda, there is no other President who has ruled Zambia longer than Frederick Chiluba did. The second republican president had the privilege of serving his two full terms without the interference of ill health, death or electoral defeat; a God given honour that no one else since him has so far achieved. But there are more sad memories to remember from that presidency than good.
Frederick Chiluba was a powerful leader who got into government with a record election victory that will take many years to be broken. People loved him for many things, including his eloquence in speech. He had all the time while in State House to serve with dignity and leave a powerful legacy behind him. But did he do that? No! All the many good things he did for Zambia were dented by his poor ending in power. Shortly after leaving office, Frederick Chiluba was charged along with his former intelligence chief, Xavier Chungu, and several former ministers and senior officials, with 168 counts of theft totaling more than US$40 million.
After years of toiling from courtroom to courtroom, Frederick Chiluba was acquitted of all criminal charges. The man who was called a thief for almost two decades was finally declared innocent. Under normal circumstances, this would have meant that he was washed clean by the courts of law, and therefore his dignity and public respect should have been restored instantly.
We have no basis on which to suggest that the acquittal of the former president was dubious or politically motivated. Unfortunately, though, that court process did not succeed to launder Frederick Chiluba. To date, the acquittal has not changed his legacy. What people remember about their former president is impossible to erase.
Is it not surprising that the former president died in 2011, but no one came forward the following year to mobilise a remembrance for his legacy? For seven years, Frederick Chiluba was buried and forgotten until today, why? In our opinion, this is because his legacy is difficult to embrace and many people are not so proud of it. It is no wonder the memorial lecture held in his honour was centered on laundering him, rather than preaching what we should learn from him.
The courts said Frederick Chiluba was an innocent man, but Zambians have found it difficult to buy that narrative. As far as they are concerned, this controversial man was a thief who plundered national resources with the help of his friends who served under him in government. Whether that is true or not is now between him and his Creator.
We are not here to say there is not one thing that Chiluba did right. Leaving a good legacy doesn’t mean being blameless in your deeds as a leader. That is impossible for a human being to achieve. That is why even the most admired former president, Levy Mwanawasa is the one we are all condemning for selling Konkola Copper Mines for a paltry US$25 million. But his anti corruption legacy is out there for all to testify.
A lesson for President Edgar Lungu: Sir, you are in poll position to be the second elected President of Zambia under the multiparty system to finish two full terms, if not more. The time is now to earn that legacy, not when you are out of office or when your remains are at Embassy Park. What do you want Zambians to remember you for? What legacy are you creating for your presidency?
If you lost power today, would people demand for the lifting of your immunity? Would you stand in court and defend your deeds? What about if you died today? What would be the symbol of the Edgar Lungu presidency? Would it be the corruption fight, the economic emancipation, the promotion of a free press, or perhaps just the alcohol? What is your legacy Mr Lungu? Remember, it is impossible to recreate one’s legacy through speeches, once they are gone; and one great English lawyer once said “Today’s dictator can be tomorrows defendant”.