The Zambian president, Levy Mwanawasa, died in France today nearly two months after suffering a stroke during an African Union conference. He was 59.
Doctors at the Percy military hospital near Paris had performed emergency surgery on Mwanawasa yesterday following a sharp deterioration in his condition. Though the operation was initially described as successful, Zambian state television broke the news of the death this morning.
“Fellow countrymen, with deep sorrow and grief, I would like to inform the people of Zambia that our president Dr Levy Patrick Mwanawasa died this morning at 1030 hours,” said the vice-president, Rupiah Banda. “I also wish to inform the nation that national mourning starts today and will be for seven days.”
Banda will take over as acting president until elections, expected to be held within 90 days.
A former lawyer, Mwanawasa was regarded as one of the Africa’s most progressive leaders. His efforts to tackle corruption helped win Zambia widespread debt relief. Under his leadership, Zambia’s economy grew at 5%, helped by the buoyant copper price, while inflation dropped to the lowest level in three decades. Mwanawasa freely admitted, however, that the benefits had not trickled down sufficiently to the poor.
Beyond Zambia, he became best known as a vocal – and rare – African critic of the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, leading to strained relations between the southern African neighbours.
Leading the tributes today, the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, described Mwanawasa’s death as “a great loss for the African continent”.
Mwanawasa first rose to political prominence as a leader of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, which ended the single-party rule of Kenneth Kaunda in 1991. After a stint as vice-president during the Nineties, he was surprisingly chosen by the then-president Frederick Chiluba to be the ruling party candidate for the 2001 election.
But soon after taking office Mwanawasa proved his independence by turning on Chiluba, who was put on trial for corruption. He won a second term in 2006.
His health had been a concern even before he became president. In 1991 he was hospitalised for three months following a serious car accident that left him with a permanent slur. The one positive of the accident, he joked, was that he lost his taste for alcohol.
He suffered a minor stroke in 2006, and sought treatment in the UK before declaring himself fit to stand for re-election. He was flown to France soon after collapsing at the African Union summit in Cairo on June 29, and never returned home. (The Guardian)