The death of Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa is a great loss to the African continent, the African Union said on Tuesday.
“The passing of President Mwanawasa is a great loss not only to the people of Zambia but also to the Southern African region and the entire African continent,” AU chief Jean Ping said in a statement.
“[Ping] expresses his condolences to the family of the late president and to the people of Zambia and expresses his solidarity and that of the African people to the people of Zambia during this difficult period,” the statement added.
AU chairperson and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said: “Africa will remember Mwanawasa for his role in resolving African conflicts particularly when he was chairman of the Southern African Development Community.”
Mwanawasa, who died on Tuesday in a Paris hospital, was among the first African leaders to openly criticise Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, after the lengthy delay in announcing the results of Zimbabwe’s initial March 29 vote.
In his condolences, Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki said the “people of Zambia and Africa as a whole have lost an eminent leader”.
“His struggle for justice and the economic well-being of his people will be an enduring chapter in the history of Zambia,” Kibaki said in a statement.
The 59-year-old Mwanawasa suffered a stroke in Egypt on June 29, on the eve of an African Union summit. It was his second stroke in just over two years. He was airlifted to France after initially being treated in Cairo.
‘Champion of democracy’
United States President George Bush praised Mwanawasa for speaking out against human rights abuses and threats to democracy “when many others were silent”.
“President Mwanawasa was a champion of democracy in his own country and throughout Africa,” Bush said in a statement released at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Mwanawasa’s death “a great loss for the African continent”.
Mwanawasa’s illness precipitated power struggles within and between Zambia’s political parties and his death leaves a power vacuum.
Mwanawasa did not groom a successor, and Vice-President Rupiah Banda was expected to continue as acting president until an election that must be held within 90 days.
Zimbabwe’s opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was one of the first to pay tribute to a “good friend and comrade” who stood up for democracy in Southern Africa.
“His passing-on is a sad day to the Zimbabwean people,” said Tsvangirai, who had repeatedly asked that Mwanawasa replace South African President Thabo Mbeki in mediating the Zimbabwean crisis.
Mugabe was long revered as an African independence hero, but the softly spoken Mwanawasa — Zambia’s third president since independence from Britain in 1964 — was not bound by the liberation movement ties of older African leaders.
Mwanawasa was equally outspoken about Western criticism of the unconditional aid that China is pouring into Africa, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars China has invested in mining Zambian copper.
“You people in the West redeem yourself before you begin attacking China,” Mwanawasa told an audience in the United States last year.
At home and abroad, Mwanawasa won praise for fighting corruption and modernising Zambia’s economy.
But he admitted that he had failed to lift the nation of 12-million people out of crushing poverty.
Born on September 3 1948, in the northern town of Mufulira, Mwanawasa graduated from the University of Zambia and practiced law before going into government service. After a stint as solicitor general in 1986, under Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, Mwanawasa became a key figure in the push for multiparty democracy.
When Frederick Chiluba defeated Kaunda in Zambia’s first multiparty elections in 1991, Mwanawasa was appointed vice-president, but soon quit the post, complaining of corruption.
Still, Chiluba later tapped Mwanawasa to be his successor. Mwanawasa won the presidency in 2001 in an election marred by allegations of fraud, and was re-elected with 43% of the vote in a 2006 poll generally regarded as transparent and fair.
Mwanawasa seized on anti-corruption and economic reforms and targeted Chiluba, who was found guilty in a London court of stealing $46-million from state coffers during his 10-year rule.
Mwanawasa tamed inflation, from 21,7% when he became president to an estimated 6,6%. His economic austerity and market-opening policies drew support from Western donors who in 2005 cancelled nearly all of Zambia’s $7,2-billion foreign debt.
But critics accused him of turning a blind eye to the plight of the poor in a country where less than 20% of the population has formal employment and the majority lives below the poverty line.
Zambia’s sprawling townships, homes of the urban poor, became the power base of his populist rival Michael Sata.
Opponents said Mwanawasa pandered to the whims of Western donors; Mwanawasa countered that it was thanks to the debt relief that he was able to increase spending on education and health.
He is survived by his wife Maureen and six children. Funeral plans were not immediately announced. â€“ Sapa-AP