Monday’s Lusaka Magistrates Court’s landmark ruling clearing former Zambian president Frederick Chiluba of all corruption charges has given hope to neighbouring Malawi’s former president Bakili Muluzi who is standing trial on similar allegations, according to Pan Africa News Agency (PANA).
In a ruling that analysts say may resonate across Africa, the court acquitted Chiluba of stealing about half a million dollars, part of the millions that he and his wife are accused of siphoning from state coffers during his decade as leader of the copper-rich nation. Originally, the verdict was expected last Friday but the presiding magistrate, Jones Chinyama, was not ready to give judgment.
Chiluba did appear in court looking relaxed despite facing a possible jail term. Chinyama, in his ruling, said the prosecution team had failed to prove the case against the former president, who ruled Zambia for a decade after ousting liberation hero Kenneth Kaunda in multiparty elections in 1991.
“I find that the accused is not guilty on all counts,” said the magistrate. ”
This is a good pointer for us that Dr. Muluzi will be acquitted,” said Fahad Assani, one of the lawyers defending Muluzi on his fraud and corruption allegations. “The state simply has no evidence.”
Muluzi, who ruled the southern African country between 1994 and 2004, stands accused of diverting at least US$ 13 million of donor money meant for various government development projects to his personal accounts. He denies the charges, alleging political persecution by his successor Bingu wa Mutharika. Assani said Monday’s ruling in Lusaka “should make African leaders to be extremely careful with bodies that fight corruption because if they are politically abused they may cost tax-payers millions of dollars”. He said because of the high offices ex-presidents held “damages may be huge if they decide to sue the state once they get acquited”. But Alexius Nampota, director for the state corruption-busting body – the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) – laughed off drawing similarities in the two cases. “People are not acquitted because they are former presidents so that we draw parallels that because a former president has been acquitted then it follows that an other former president will be acquitted as well,” he told PANA in an interview. “I don’t think Dr. Muluzi and Dr. Chiluba’s cases are similar. It’s up to the courts to decide: if they see that the evidence in Dr. Muluzi’s case is not sufficient enough they will acquit him; if they feel it’s sufficient enough they will convict him. So let’s cross that bridge once we reach it.” Socio-political analyst Rafiq Hajat, who heads a Blantyre-based think-tank Institute for Policy Interaction (IPI), agreed with Nampota, saying it is too early for the Muluzi camp to start drawing parallels with the Chiluba case. “I think the cases may be different; there might be differences in mechanisms and methodologies in the two cases; all cases are handled on a case by case basis, ” he said. Hajat, however, said although Chiluba has been acquitted his long over-drawn trial should act as a warning to African leaders that no one is above the law. “It is becoming a pattern that once out of power African leaders are taken to task for all crimes and misdemeanours that they may have committed while in power, ” he said. On the downside, nonetheless, Hajat observed that this fear is leading to some leaders “to tweak their Constitutions so that they stay on in power forever to avoid being taken to task”. Muluzi tried to change the Constitution twice in order to elongate his stay in State House. First, he tried to abolish term limits for presidents. His bid failed by a mere three votes to reach the two-thirds majority needed for Parliament to change the Constitution. He tried to get “just a third term” but the opposition to the bid was too huge that he freaked out before taking the issue back to Parliament. Instead he anointed Mutharika to succeed him after he imposed him on his then ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) as its candidate for the 2004 elections. But just nine months into his presidency, the economist-turned-politician quit the UDF, citing his former colleagues’ resistance to his tough anti-corruption drive as the reason of his unusual move. He went on to found his own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Muluzi and several of his former top government officials are currently facing several fraud and corruption cases in courts. The Mutharika administration claims that at least US$ 93 million of government money was abused during the 10 years of Muluzi administration.