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Tuesday, August 19, 2008 - Page updated at 10:41 AM

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Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa dies at 59

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, who broke the African tradition of silence and solidarity among leaders to denounce neighboring Zimbabwe's economic ruin, died in a French military hospital Tuesday. He was 59.

Associated Press Writer

LUSAKA, Zambia —

Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, who broke the African tradition of silence and solidarity among leaders to denounce neighboring Zimbabwe's economic ruin, died in a French military hospital Tuesday. He was 59.

Mwanawasa had suffered a stroke and collapsed at an African Union summit in Egypt in June, which cost Zimbabweans the voice of one of their few champions on the continent.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Mwanawasa's death "a great loss for the African continent" and for democracy.

Mwanawasa was airlifted from Egypt to France's Percy Military Hospital, where he remained until he had an urgent operation on Monday and died on Tuesday, according to Vice President Rupiah Banda.

Banda made the televised announcement "with great grief and deep sorrow."

Mwanawasa's illness precipitated power struggles within and between Zambia's political parties and his death leaves a power vacuum. Mwanawasa did not groom a successor, and Banda was expected to continue as acting president until an election that must be held within in 90 days.

Widely regarded as a man of integrity, he won praise for breaking the traditional silence of African leaders to criticize his autocratic neighbor, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, which encouraged a few other African presidents to show their displeasure.

Speaking earlier this year of Zimbabwe and the exodus of millions of its citizens, Mwanawasa said the country "has sunk into such economic difficulties that it may be likened to a sinking Titanic whose passengers are jumping out in a bid to save their lives."

Zimbabwe's opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai was one of the first to pay tribute to a "good friend and comrade" who stood up for democracy in southern Africa.

"His passing-on is a sad day to the Zimbabwean people," said Tsvangirai, who had repeatedly asked that Mwanawasa replace South African President Thabo Mbeki in mediating the Zimbabwean crisis.

Mugabe was long revered as an African independence hero, but the softly spoken Mwanawasa - Zambia's third president since independence from Britain in 1964 - was not bound by the liberation movement ties of older African leaders.

Mwanawasa was equally outspoken about Western criticism of the unconditional aid that China is pouring into Africa, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars China has invested in mining Zambian copper.

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"You people in the West redeem yourself before you begin attacking China," Mwanawasa told an audience in the United States last year.

At home and abroad, Mwanawasa won praise for fighting corruption and modernizing Zambia's economy.

But he admitted that he had failed to lift the nation of 12 million people out of crushing poverty.

Born on Sept. 3, 1948, in the northern town of Mufulira, Mwanawasa graduated from the University of Zambia and practiced law before going into government service. After a stint as solicitor general in 1986, under Zambia's first president, Kenneth Kaunda, Mwanawasa became a key figure in the push for multiparty democracy.

When Frederick Chiluba defeated Kaunda in Zambia's first multiparty elections in 1991, Mwanawasa was appointed vice president, but soon quit the post, complaining of corruption.

Still, Chiluba later tapped Mwanawasa to be his successor. Mwanawasa won the presidency in 2001 in an election marred by allegations of fraud, and was re-elected with 43 percent of votes in a 2006 poll generally regarded as transparent and fair.

Mwanawasa seized on anti-corruption and economic reforms and targeted Chiluba, who was found guilty in a London court of stealing US$46 million from state coffers during his 10-year rule.

Mwanawasa tamed inflation, from 21.7 percent when he became president to an estimated 6.6 percent. His economic austerity and market-opening policies drew support from Western donors who in 2005 canceled nearly all of Zambia's $7.2 billion foreign debt.

But critics accused him of turning a blind eye to the plight of the poor in a country where less than 20 percent of the population has formal employment and the majority lives below the poverty line. Zambia's sprawling townships, homes of the urban poor, became the power base of his populist rival Michael Sata.

Opponents said Mwanawasa pandered to the whims of Western donors; Mwanawasa countered that it was thanks to the debt relief that he was able to increase spending on education and health.

He is survived by his wife Maureen and six children. Funeral plans were not immediately announced.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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