Chiluba, Frederick

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Frederick Chiluba


President, trade unionist

Frederick Chiluba was elected president of Zambia in 1991 in the country's first multiparty elections. A landlocked country in Africa, Zambia is heavily dependent on a single export commodity, copper, and as such has one of the highest levels of industrialization on the continent, and the most developed trade union movement, apart from that in South Africa. A self-made man and active trade unionist who grew up in a mining town in the Copperbelt region, Chiluba seemed an unlikely figure to unseat Kenneth Kaunda—known affectionately as "KK" and as "father of the nation"—who had ruled the country for twenty-seven years since independence. Indeed, Kaunda often referred to his successor as a "political dwarf", in part in reference to his diminutive stature of just over five feet. Chiluba, however, proved himself to be a shrewd politician and forceful leader, serving as Zambia's president until 2001.

Most accounts report that the first elected president of Zambia was born Frederick Jacob Titus Chiluba on April 30, 1943, to Jacob Titus Chiluba Nkonde and Diana Kaimba, in the mining town of Kitwe on the Zambian Copperbelt. His parentage is not clear, however, and his political opponents challenged his eligibility to contest the 1996 presidential elections claiming that he or his father was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire). There is no doubt, however, that he was raised on the Copperbelt and this contributed to his early interest in and involvement with trade unionism. Information about Chiluba's education indicates that it was patchy at best. Chiluba worked many different, sometimes menial jobs. At the age of nineteen, he began work as a personnel clerk on a Tanzanian sisal plantation. On his return home in 1966 he worked as an account clerk and shop steward with the Swedish firm Atlas Copco, working there for many years during which time he met and married his wife Vera and was heavily involved in trade union activity. In between all this, he managed to complete his secondary education and courses on bookkeeping and credit collection via London correspondence courses. Once elected president, Chiluba even completed a master's degree from Britain's Warwick University.

Rose to Power Through the Labor Movement

Chiluba rose quickly through the ranks of the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), the coordinating body of the country's 19 major unions, to be elected chair in 1974. Established in 1964 by the ruling party, United National Independence Party (UNIP), as a means to communicate with the labor force, the ZCTU had historically supported UNIP. In the mid-1970s, Chiluba urged the government not to regard ZCTU as a pressure group and reiterated its support for the government. Throughout the 1980s, however, the relationship deteriorated as the ZCTU resisted attempts at government incorporation, and Chiluba's attitude changed from one of automatic support for the ruling party to one of monitoring its progress and performance. During this time of transition, however, the ZCTU maintained that it had no intention of becoming a political party. 1981 marked the first major conflict between the trade union movement and the government when Chiluba and sixteen other leading trade unionists were expelled from the party and imprisoned following their refusal to cooperate with the government's Local Administration Act. As the state of the economy deteriorated and the price of maize (corn) meal, a staple of the Zambian diet, doubled, the trade union movement called for strikes and there were major uprisings in most urban centers in 1986.

As the largest and most powerful non-state organization in Zambia, ZCTU's expression of support for multiparty democracy was a landmark in the country's journey towards democracy. Chiluba said in 1989 that "if the owners of socialism have withdrawn from the one party system who are the Africans to continue with it?" according to a Times of Zambia article quoted in Comparative Politics. Kaunda lifted the ban to organize opposition parties in July of 1990 and within days the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) was officially established as a party, and in 1991 ZCTU broke its alliance with UNIP to support the new party. Apart from UNIP no other association had a comparable organizational network, and MMD benefited greatly from the union's organizational apparatus, which along with resources and man-power, were harnessed in support of MMD. MMD was not, however, a labor movement, but rather a broad-based, diverse coalition of interests. Chiluba's election as chair at the party's first national convention in 1991—in which he defeated Arthur Wina and Humphrey Mulemba, both veteran politicians and UNIP defectors—served as a unifying symbol with whom the Zambian population identified, and his history as a labor leader concealed the dominance within MMD of business and former members of UNIP. A former labor leader may have led the party to victory, but business had funded MMD with at least ten million US dollars.

In elections declared to be free and fair both by international and local monitors, the MMD was swept to victory winning almost three quarters of the vote and 125 out of 150 seats in the National Assembly in October of 1991. Kaunda immediately and gracefully accepted his loss of office, enabling Chiluba to preside over what was to be the first of a series of government handovers through the ballot box to be witnessed in Sub-Saharan Africa, and as such Zambia was hailed by the international community as a pioneer of democracy and duly rewarded with considerable amounts of aid. Chiluba became president November 2, 1991, and in his inaugural speech declared that "the hour has come to build a new Zambia," as quoted in African Affairs. Shortly after his election, Chiluba, a born-again Christian who had discovered religion during imprisonment, declared Zambia a Christian nation. He pledged to instill biblical values into the political life of the country, but apart from the peppering of biblical references in his speeches, and one other visible Christian member of the ruling party, this declaration did not translate into noticeable changes in how the country was run.

Set About Fixing a Ravaged Economy

The prevailing consensus amongst international donors as to the best way to achieve development was that political and economic liberalization should be undertaken simultaneously, and it was on such a ticket that Chiluba was elected. His government inherited a hugely indebted economy that was in shatters. Chiluba thus swiftly implemented a series of market-oriented reforms, such as the removal of subsidies on maize meal and petroleum imports, the liberalization of foreign exchange, and wholesale privatization. Chiluba is quoted in Forbes as saying, "We are determined to move away from a life of subsidy and consumption to a life of sacrifice and production." The commitment to transform Zambia's economy from one dominated by large state companies and parastatals (companies managed—fully or in part—by a national government) to a market-driven, private-sector-led economy was not to last, however. 1993, for example, saw the removal of figures spearheading the economic reform effort.

At a Glance …

Born Frederick Jacob Titus Chiluba on April 30, 1943, in Kitwe, Zambia; married Vera Chiluba (divorced); children: Helena, Miloyan, Hortensia, Castro, Patrice, Ekman, Hulda, Fred Jr. and Vera Jr. Education: Warwick University, MPhil, 199?. Religion: Christian.

Career: Atlas Copco, Zambia, various positions, 1966–1990; Zambia Congress of Trade Unions, Zambia, chairman, 1974–1991; Zambia, president, 1991–2001.

Memberships: Organization of African Unity (OAU), chairman.

For many observers, the litmus test would be whether Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines (ZCCM) made it into private hands or remained a national industry. Given that the economy remained dependent upon copper for 80 percent of its exports, the issue was inexorably politically charged. Debates raged throughout the ten years of Chiluba's presidency and the decision was repeatedly delayed. The mines were finally privatized in 2000, but in the following year the government reneged on its commitment to privatize a number of public utilities, opting for commercialization instead. In defence of this decision, Chiluba told a rally organized by the MMD that his government had learnt from their privatization of other parastatals in the earlier years of his tenure that foreign companies—who would most likely become the new owners of ZCCM—would be unlikely to feel any obligation to contribute towards Zambia's economic welfare or to provide services at affordable rates. This stand garnered the support of trade unionists, human rights organizations and opposition groups.

Accusations of corruption, drug smuggling, and human rights abuses amongst high level ministers and officials were not uncommon throughout Chiluba's ten years in office. Analysts focused in large part upon Chiluba's lack of political experience to explain his inability to discipline and rein in his corrupt ministers, some of whom were business tycoons and political veterans who had been long-standing members of the UNIP government.

Although by the end of Chiluba's tenure as president In 2001, real GDP grew at a rate of 3.5 percent and inflation fell to its lowest in two decades, as indicated by World Bank figures, few Zambians had benefited from this new-found macroeconomic stability. Extensive privatization and the removal of subsidies contributed to the deterioration of living standards, and as Chiluba left office over 80 percent of the population were living below the poverty line.

Zambia: A Pioneer of Democracy?

Two years into Chiluba's presidency, in March of 1993, a coup plot—called "zero option," a plan to incite widespread disobedience—was discovered and the government responded by declaring a state of emergency. Chiluba explained his decision: "Zambia is threatened. Our young democracy is at stake. The danger is real and the consequences if not attended to are grave," as quoted by Melissa Ham in Africa Report. While Chiluba argued that the declaration of a state of emergency was necessary to protect the young democracy, others, including some within the government, saw the declaration itself as an assault on democracy, for it was reminiscent of the tactics employed by the previous government. On discovery of the plot, eleven members of UNIP, amongst them one of Kaunda's sons, were arrested and detained, but none of the arrests led to any convictions.

Questions about economic liberalization which characterized the debates around the 1991 elections contrasted with the rhetoric regarding citizenship which accompanied the 1996 elections. In spite of opposition amongst the donor community, parliament passed a constitutional amendment barring anyone whose parentage was not Zambian from standing for the presidency. Given that Kaunda's parents were from the area which is now Malawi, despite being the most credible alternative to Chiluba, he was effectively disqualified from standing for election. Indeed, Chiluba seems to have always been somewhat threatened by the stature of his predecessor, generally avoiding international gatherings where he would be present, and sending representatives instead. Chiluba's own claims to Zambian citizenship did not go unchallenged and his political opposition produced a birth certificate which they claimed proved that the president had been born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (former Zaire)—a document that the Zambian government declared to be fake. In spite of a call from Kaunda for a boycott of the elections, they went ahead and the MMD won all but three seats. Less than half of those eligible to vote were registered and less than half of those registered did go to the polls. It was a hollow victory that lacked the legitimacy that the elections which swept Chiluba to power had enjoyed, and both international and local observers united in declaring the elections neither free nor fair.

Kaunda voiced concern over the election results and continued his efforts against Chiluba. In the October of the following year, a few days after he predicted that an "explosion" would occur, a group of soldiers took over Zambia's radio station and declared that they had deposed Chiluba, according to an article on the Amnesty International Web site. It was a premature declaration, however, and the army moved in swiftly to subdue the situation. Chiluba announced a state of emergency for the second time during his rule and had Kaunda arrested on his way home from a two month trip. In March of 1998 all charges against him were dropped and the state of emergency lifted without explanation.

Towards the end of Chiluba's second term, speculation was rife that he sought a third, and would change both the national and his party constitution to do so. Although he vehemently denied this, such rumors were given credence when anti-third-term activists were denied entry to an extraordinary MMD convention. Arguably frustrated by popular pressure Chiluba announced that he had never sought a third term and appointed as presidential candidate Levy Mwanawasa, who had served as vice-president until 1994 when he resigned in protest against corruption. He was widely seen as a weak character, and so his selection was seen as an attempt by Chiluba to maintain a hold on power from behind the scenes. The Post of Zambia alleged he was "of Chiluba, by Chiluba, and for Chiluba," as quoted by David J. Simon in a report on the Freedom House Web site.

If it was indeed Chiluba's intention to maintain control, it was frustrated, for shortly after Mwanawasa's election in 2001 he declared a "war on corruption and economic plunder" and established a task force to investigate corruption in his predecessor's government. After Mwanawasa alleged that Chiluba had stolen approximately $80 million during his ten-year tenure, parliament voted unanimously that his immunity be lifted in 2002. Chiluba challenged the decision, observers noted that he had trampled over the immunity of his own predecessor when he had Kaunda arrested in 1997, and in February of 2004 the Supreme Court affirmed parliament's lifting of his immunity. Chiluba faced fifty-nine charges of theft and abuse of office, all of which he denied. Other top officials from his government were also charged, but complaints surfaced from a Zambian group called Citizens' Forum that the war on corruption had become too centered upon the former president.

Whether Chiluba will be remembered for brokering a seemingly impossible peace in the Democratic Republic of Congo (Zaire), for leading his country to democracy, or indeed, for failing to do so, only time will tell. The plaudits piled on Chiluba by the international community for his renown as a democrat may have been withdrawn. The difficulties faced by Chiluba's government are less a reflection of his commitment to democracy, however, than they are testament to the magnitude of the challenge of establishing and consolidating democracy, and of carrying out economic and political liberalization, in conditions of severe economic crisis, staggering debt and extreme dependency on international donors—a predicament that other countries on the African continent share with Zambia.



Chiluba, Frederick, Democracy: The Challenge of Change, Multimedia Publications, 1995.

Rakner, Lise, Political and Economic Liberalization in Zambia 1991–2001, Nordic Africa Institute, 2003.

Rakner, Lise, Trade Unions in Processes of Democratization: A Study of Party Labor Relations in Zambia, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Department of Social Science and Development, 1992.


African Affairs, 91(361), 1992.

African Business, April 2001; September 2002.

Africa Report, May-June, 1993; March 1994.

Canadian Journal of African Studies, 29(1), 1995.

Christianity Today, April 1995.

Comparative Politics, 24(4), 1992.

Forbes, September 1993.

Journal of Modern African Studies, 36(1), 1998.

Journal of Southern African Studies, 26(3), 2000.

New African, June 2001; May 2002.

Privatisation International, December 1994.


"Country Brief: Zambia," World Bank,,menuPK:375684∼pagePK:141132∼piPK:141107∼theSitePK:375589,00.html (January 12, 2006).

Simon, David J. "Country at the Crossroads 2005: Country Report: Zambia," Freedom House, (March 14, 2006).

"Zambia: Misrule of Law: Human Rights in a State of Emergency," Amnesty International, (March 14, 2006).