LUSAKA (Reuters) - Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, a favorite of Western donors and strong critic of Zimbabwean leader Robert Mugabe, died in a French hospital on Tuesday nearly two months after suffering a stroke. He was 59.
Mwanawasa won praise abroad for tackling corruption and turning the copper-rich southern African country into one of the continent’s biggest success stories, but opponents said he had failed to help most Zambians to escape poverty.
“Fellow countrymen, with deep sorrow and grief, I would like to inform the people of Zambia that our president Dr. Levy Patrick Mwanawasa died this morning at 1030 hours (4:30 a.m. EDT),” Vice President Rupiah Banda said on state television.
He declared a seven-day mourning period.
Banda is expected to take over as acting president, under Zambia’s constitution, before early elections in the country of about 11.5 million.
But Mwanawasa’s death has created political uncertainty in Africa’s biggest copper producer.
“We have enjoyed peace even during his sickness. But now we are not certain whether the next president will be like him,” said Tangerine Tembo, 28, a hairdresser at a busy market.
Zambia’s kwacha currency fell as much as 3 percent on news of Mwanawasa’s death. He suffered a stroke, his second, during an African summit in Egypt on June 29 and was taken from there to a French hospital.
Mwanawasa built his reputation as a lawyer for the former opposition, cultivating an earthy image. He became vice-president in 1991 and stunned observers after winning the presidency in 2001 by turning on former boss Frederick Chiluba.
U.S. President George W. Bush, in a statement issued in Crawford, Texas, said: “President Mwanawasa was a champion of democracy in his own country and throughout Africa.”
The International Monetary Fund and other Western donors extended billions of dollars in debt relief after he curbed government spending and launched the biggest anti-corruption crackdown since Zambia won independence from Britain in 1964.
Foes said he used the campaign as a weapon against them.
Mwanawasa, from a newer generation of African leaders, had been more critical of Mugabe than presidents of many of Zimbabwe’s other neighbors who had stronger connections to the era of liberation struggles.
“He showed that he had the courage to speak his own mind about issues that needed to be confronted, like Zimbabwe,” said Francis Kornegay of the Centre for Policy Studies.
“Given the situation in the region, losing someone like that is a loss because you need to have people like them, and the more the better.”
Mwanawasa once described Zimbabwe as a “sinking Titanic” because of its economic collapse.
In a statement read on his behalf to a southern African summit at the weekend, Mwanawasa said events in Zimbabwe were “a serious blot on the culture of democracy in our sub-region”.
Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai described Mwanawasa as a “champion of the democratization” of Africa.
At home, Mwanawasa’s economic policies helped usher in strong growth, which averaged 5 percent over the last six years, while inflation declined to single digits in April 2006, for the first time in over three decades.
Zambian Finance Minister Ng‘andu Magande said there would be no policy change under new leadership.
“We will surely find someone wearing the same team shirt and macroeconomic policy will continue the same way. Economic transformation will continue so we can sustain our political and economic gains,” he told Reuters.
But Jotham Momba, a political analyst at the University of Zambia, said the political transition may not be as smooth.
“I don’t think much will change in terms of the economy. But this will create a great deal of political uncertainty because there is no clear leader to take over from Mwanawasa,” he said.
Despite the debt relief package and major foreign investment, Mwanawasa has battled a growing public perception that his economic success had done little to tackle poverty.
Treasury data at the start of the year indicated that 65 percent of Zambians live on less than a dollar per day.
Mwanawasa narrowly defeated opposition leader Michael Sata in a presidential election in 2006. Sata accused Mwanawasa of selling out Zambia to Chinese and Indian companies.
(Writing by Michael Georgy, editing by Mark Trevelyan)
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