The President is Not a Cabbage
Trip Start Apr 26, 2005
42Trip End Nov 17, 2005
Now aged 81, KK is still around, making verbose statements on various issues and clearly enjoying his status as elder statesman. One local newspaper even publishes his rambling "Diary" in a weekly column--from his memories of fellow African dignitaries to what he eats for lunch--with his photo running along the byline looking the picture of a weepy old uncle clutching his trademark white handkerchief.
But for decades opposition to his rule grew, and in the first multi-party elections in 1991 he was soundly defeated, ushering in a new party, the Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) and it's charismatic leader, Frederick Chiluba
Perhaps it's a good thing he lost. After ten years as president, Chiluba is facing numerous charges of corruption--including abuse of office and the theft of some $500,000--arriving at the Lusaka Magistrates Court wearing expensive suits and a shit-eating grin, with his third wife, Regina, towering over the diminutive ex-president.
In the general elections of 2001 a new MMD leader stood in Chiluba's place and won. To look at him or hear him speak, President Levy Mwanawasa is a laughable fellow, in a suit two sizes too small for a man approaching 300 pounds, his rolly face set in gaze of perpetual dopiness under a head of mottled greying hair. But Zambia's head of state is far from a benign clown, and fast becoming a picture of the stereotypical African ruler; arrogant, bullish and corrupt.
If electors had looked hard enough they may have seen it coming. Before he assumed office Mwanawasa, or Levy as he's commonly known, had a wonderfully appropriate nickname: the Cabbage. With his goofy appearance and loose talk he suits the comparison to that lowly vegetable. His public response, however, was equally brilliant. "I'm not a cabbage," he exclaimed. "I'm a steak."
He's a funny guy, Levy, prone to the George W Bush school of public speaking. At a by-election campaign rally in Kalulushi, a small town in the Copperbelt, Mwanawasa gave a stunning and little-publicized revelation about his body politic. "The game we are involved in," he told the crowd, "is where I scratch your back and you scratch mine. We want you to scratch our back so that we do more."
One of the popular--and somewhat pop psychology--explanations for his eccentric ties comes from a serious car accident Mwanawasa was involved in ten years ago. Whether or not the accident had a long-term psychological effect is unclear, though being violently bashed up might explain how wacky the guy can be.
At times he acts more like a foul-mouthed stand-up comic than a President. In a speech disparaging an opposition politician, Mwanawasa referred to the man and his party as a buttocks. "They will never get into government," Levy pronounced, "because the party is like a matako (buttocks) which cannot suddenly find themselves in front of a human being."
It was a clever if crude insult, and even the president's detractors had a laugh Less funny has been Levy's reaction to his unstable power base, and the cover-ups and party intrigue that have plagued Zambian politics in the past year.
The stakes are certainly high for Zambia's top Bwana. With presidential elections are set for July 2006, and Mwanawasa seems intent on neutralizing all opposition. The last six months have seen party intrigues and expulsions, arrests and bulling that would warm the cockles of any tyrant. Recently the editor of the Post, Zambia's independent daily newspaper, was arrested for defaming the President, a fair assertion but one which was made after the President defamed the editor.
Yet despite the corruption, the bullying and uninspired leadership, Levy is poised to win the next election. The opposition parties are just too disorganized and equally uninspired to pose a serious challenge for the presidency. The only caveat may be that, constitutionally, Mwanawasa can only serve two terms in office. Small consolation for having to put up with five more years of the Cabbage.