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Zambia's ex-President Rupiah Banda dead at 85

March 12, 2022

The country's fourth president oversaw great economic growth, but his tenure was marred by corruption allegations. He died of cancer in the capital, Lusaka.

 Former Zambian Preident Rupiah Banda
Rupiah Banda's 50-year career in business and politics spanned the globe but was dogged by allegations of corruptionImage: Joseph Mwenda/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Rupiah Banda, who served as president of Zambia from 2008 and 2011, died Friday evening in the capital Lusaka at age 85 after a two-year battle with cancer. His son Andrew confirmed the former leader's death, saying, "He is gone."

On Friday evening, Zambia's current president, Hakainde Hichilema, made a special televised address to the nation in tribute to his predecessor. "We recognize with fondness his long and illustrious career in public service and we appreciate his service to the nation," Hichilema said. 

Banda was vice president of the southern African nation when the surprise death of President Levy Mwanawasa in 2008 propelled him to the top job, making him the fourth leader of the country after it gained independence from the United Kingdom in 1964.

Banda was narrowly elected on a ruling party ticket in October 2008, and served three years in the post.

His tenure saw great economic growth paired with allegations of widespread corruption.

The former leader oversaw major infrastructure projects — building schools, hospitals and roads — as the country's economy flourished amid rising copper prices and a flood of Chinese investment.

Despite the wealth generated during his time in office, Banda was trounced by opposition leader Michael Sata in his 2011 bid for reelection, largely due to the fact that the cash generated never reached the people but ratherended up in the hands of a small number of powerful individuals.

From colonial Rhodesia to the UN, and back to independent Zambia

Banda was born on February 19, 1937, in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. He later returned to his parents' original home of Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia, before pursuing studies in Ethiopia and Sweden, where he earned an economics degree.

Upon completing his studies, he embarked on a diplomatic career in Europe in the early 1960s. He was later appointed ambassador to Egypt, the United States and the United Nations.

His domestic political career began in 1975, taking up posts as foreign and then mining minister under Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia's first president.

Banda was also one of the country's most prominent businessmen and a long-time member of Zambia's ruling United National Independence Party.

In that capacity, Banda was tapped to run several of the country's state businesses. He was also the owner of KB Davis, supplying equipment to copper mining outfits in north-central Zambia.

An avid soccer fan, Banda also served a short stint as vice president of the Football Association of Zambia.

Banda was intent on stepping away from politics, retiring to a farm in the east of the country in 2000. In a 2008 interview, he said: "In addition to my political experience I am also a farmer, I am a man of the land."

Presidency and allegations of corruption

That retirement did not last long, however. In 2002, he joined the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy and in 2006 was named vice-president after President Mwanawasa defeated Michael Sata in Zambia's presidential election.

Soon after Banda became president in 2008, he was accused of corruption and nepotism while at the same time winding down his predecessor's anti-corruption task force, ultimately disbanding it altogether.

He was sharply criticized, for instance, for allowing the acquittal of former President Frederick Chiluba to stand without appeal and was characterized by Sata as a "friend of thieves." Banda was suspected of embezzling more than $11 million (€10.08 million) of state funds during his tenure.

In 2013, he was stripped of his immunity but was never convicted of any crimes.

Banda was diagnosed with colon cancer in 2020 and had been receiving medical treatment at the time of his death.

Zambia's president eyes economic reforms

js/fb (AFP, Reuters)