As former Zambian President, Federick Chiluba, fights for his freedom and political life, the question being asked throughout Africa is whether the time has finally come when corrupt leaders will be made to answer for their crimes.
It was probably coincidental, coming simultaneously with the inauguration of the African Union and its promise to cleanse the continent of wrongdoing in high places, but it added substance to the ideals of transparency; human rights observance and democracy enshrined in the AU's fledgling charter.
Even so, news that Zambia's new President, Levy Mwanawasa had withdrawn legal immunity from former Head of State, Frederick Chiluba and that criminal charges could follow came as surprise to the gathering of Africa's supremos in Durban, South Africa, in July, there to launch the African Union. Few, if any, had anticipated the move.
Inevitably the breakthrough against corrupt governance came in Zambia, Africa's most democratic state. It was all the more dramatic because Chiluba had, before the election of Levy Mwanawasa as Zambian President, been chairman of the OAU. That so august a member of the African brotherhood of leaders could face conviction for theft by his countrymen sent shock waves through the meeting.
President Mwanawasa's attempt to rid Zambia of corruption in government by, most importantly, stripping Chiluba of executive privilege is a first in Africa. Never before has an African leader been publicly taken to task for dishonesty, been denied constitutional immunity and threatened with imprisonment.
When Zambian lawmakers voted 140-0 to lift the immunity enjoyed by the former President, it cleared the way for a thorough investigation into allegations that Chiluba and certain members of his administration looted the national treasury of millions of dollars for self-enrichment. Chiluba immediately filed a high court injunction against Mwanawasa's action. That outcome is awaited. Zambian law protects former Heads of State from criminal prosecution and arrest.
The vote took place after the government gave in to pressure from lawmakers and some 6,000 protesters massed outside the parliament building in Lusaka, capital of the southern African state. Both members of parliament and the crowd outside the building burst into songs and dance soon after the results were announced. Elements of the crowd shouted that the vote had been a victory for democracy and had set a precedent for Africa, as previously no African leader had been made answerable for graft. The move did not inculpate the former leader but paved the way for an investigation.
Mwanawasa patently is not after Chiluba's blood. He just wants Zambia's money back. He has offered to stop all prosecution if his predecessor returns assets taken from the country. Mwanawasa was quoted by government newspapers as saying that if Chiluba agrees, "I will be ready to put my head on the chopping board. I will say it is not right to send him to prison".
It may not be as simple as that. Now that the alleged cat is out of the bag and Chiluba's protection is in danger of being stripped away, he could be sued by any aggrieved Zambian citizen, and there are plenty of those now that the blood-letting has begun. He could also be charged by the director of public prosecutions if he finds merit in...