I think there’s a special circle in Irony Hell reserved for a certain official in the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), the ruling party here in Zambia.

I’ve been trying to get an interview with Levy Mwanawasa, Zambia’s president. I got in touch with MMD headquarters to see about setting something up. I said I wanted to talk to Mwanawasa about a variety of topics: HIV/AIDS, his education policies, traditional healers, agricultural development — and, I said, Mwanawasa’s anti-corruption fight.

Some background: Mwanawasa was Zambia’s vice president in the early 1990s, under MMD President Frederick Chiluba. Mwanawasa had a reputation as a pretty clean, honest guy. Chiluba, in contrast, was widely considered corrupt. In 1994 (if memory serves) Mwanawasa announced he was resigning as VP, saying the Chiluba government was too corrupt and he no longer wanted to be a part of it.

In the months before the 2001 election, Chiluba tried to change the country’s constitution to allow him a third term as president. (The constitution allows only two terms, like the American one.) There was much public outrage — the people wanted Chiluba to go. So Chiluba ended up, strangely, endorsing the candidacy of Mwanawasa, his ex-VP who had publicly called him out as corrupt.

Mwanawasa won a close election and became president. Some folks wondered if Mwanawasa had been bought off or otherwise compromised by Chiluba in exchange for his endorsement. But shortly after taking office, Mwanawasa announced a massive anti-corruption campaign at all levels of government — pissing off many in his own party, MMD, who benefited from said corruption.

The biggest element of this campaign: Mwanawasa convinced parliament to remove Chiluba’s immunity from prosecution. Chiluba and a few of his cronies are currently standing trial for embezzling about US$30 million from the government.

Enough background, but to sum up: Mwanawasa is leading a big anti-corruption fight, and he leads a political party known for graft and corruption.

So I wanted to talk to Mwanawasa about all this, but I had to go through MMD to get to Mwanawasa. The MMD official I talked to said, yes, it would be possible to talk to the president — but the price would be $100.

In other words: Yes, you can interview the president about his fight against corruption — but only if you bribe me.

I wasn’t insulted — just terribly amused. I let it be known that American newspapers aren’t in the business of giving bribes for interviews with government officials. The MMD fellow said if I couldn’t afford $100, perhaps $50 would do? I said no thank you. He said he would see what he could do.

So it appears I won’t be interviewing the president. And it appears the president has quite a bit of work still to do.

18 November 2003


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© 2003 Joshua Benton