JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA —
Zambia’s former president is set to face trial Wednesday for allegedly stealing millions of dollars from the nation while he was in office. The trial is the latest development in the current president’s anti-corruption drive, and anti-graft officials say it is the most important symbolic step in that mission.
Zambian President Michael Sata vowed to wipe out corruption when he ran for office and won the 2011 election in the copper-rich nation.
To that end, he has launched a slew of probes into business deals worth tens of millions of dollars. Sata, an economist who has described himself as being "allergic to corruption," even fired his top aide last year after an envelope containing a bribe, allegedly meant for the aide, accidentally landed on the president’s desk.
But perhaps the most striking example of his mission is the upcoming trial of former president Rupiah Banda. The National Assembly in March revoked Banda’s legal immunity from prosecution. He was arrested last week.
Banda is accused of stealing about $11 million through an oil contract with the Nigerian government and having that money routed to his son’s account. He is also accused of using some of those funds for his failed re-election campaign.
The nation’s attorney general, Mumba Malila, says the prosecution has a good case.
"Our investigation has revealed that this was an oil deal with a Nigerian company in which he was involved and in which he didn’t perform quite to expectations as head of state," said Malila. "And so, we want to see if the court can make some guidance on it. We think, as [head of] government, that he may very well have abused his office contrary to the provisions of the Anti-Corruption act."
Banda has denied all the charges, and his attorney has said the prosecution is politically motivated.
Goodwell Lungu, the director of Zambia’s branch of the anti-graft watchdog, Transparency International
, says the upcoming trial sets an important precedent for Zambian officials.
Lungu wouldn’t discuss the merits of the case, but said he expects the court proceedings to be fair.
"This trial is a very important trial because it projects that in terms of the rule of law, no one is above the rule of law in our country and that even himself, [President] Sata, if he perhaps ends up misconducting himself, the same thing might be able to apply to him. And we feel as Zambians that it’s only fair that our leaders are supposed to, at one time or another, be held to account for all their actions as well as their omissions that they could have undertaken while holding public office," said Lungu.
In a way, though, that precedent has already been set: Banda has avoided the dubious honor of being the first Zambian president to be tried for corruption. That president was his predecessor, ex-president Frederick Chiluba, who was acquitted in 2009 on charges that he embezzled half a million dollars during his 11-year presidency.
Banda’s administration had refused to appeal his acquittal, earning the ire of his critics.
The anti-corruption campaign has seen Zambia slightly improve its corruption score according to Transparency International’s annual corruption perceptions index
But Lungu says the current administration is not above suspicion, either.
“We’d like Zambians to remain calm and let the due process of the law take its course," said Lungu. "And we’d also like to send a caution to the current PF regime in Zambia that the same law that is being able to be used to apply to the former head of state might end up catching up with them if at all their conduct might not be above our board.”
The Banda trial begins Wednesday.