Frederick Chiluba, Zambia's first democratically elected president, who became increasingly autocratic during his decade in office, died Saturday at his home in Lusaka, Zambia. He was 68.
The cause of death was not immediately clear. Chiluba, president from November 1991 to January 2002, had chronic heart problems and had been hospitalized in the past.
The son of a copper miner and former trade union leader, Chiluba was born April 30, 1943, in Kitwe, Zambia. He took office after 27 years of one-party rule by Kenneth Kaunda. Hailed as "the black Moses" and "the liberator" by his supporters, he vowed to introduce political freedoms and replace Kaunda's debt-ridden centrally planned economy with a free market.
At first, Chiluba expanded civil and political rights, and Zambia was seen as a model of democracy on a troubled continent. But eventually he slipped into Kaunda's methods of suppressing opposition, and he was dogged by corruption allegations into his retirement.
He declared a state of emergency in 1997 after a failed coup and subsequently detained Kaunda — whom he accused of being behind the plot — under house arrest. Chiluba was unapologetic after Kaunda was shot and wounded by government forces during demonstrations the same year and escaped an assassination attempt in 1999.
Chiluba's antipathy toward Zambia's founding father stemmed from his being imprisoned without charges in 1981, accused of organizing strikes to weaken the government. In prison, Chiluba became a born-again Christian and peppered his speeches with biblical references.
Chiluba barred the charismatic Kaunda from running again for president in 1996 by saying that his Malawian origins disqualified him. The opposition boycotted the poll as Chiluba's Movement for Multiparty Democracy was elected for a second term.
In his bid to free up copper-rich Zambia's economy, Chiluba slashed import duties and abolished currency controls. He sold state-owned enterprises to private buyers, many of them from Europe or South Africa.
But the measures failed to improve the lot of the majority of Zambia's 13 million people, who remained mired in abject poverty.
Chiluba left office reluctantly. After repeated promises to retire when his term ended, he flirted with changing the constitution to enable a run for a third five-year term. The move angered many Zambians, who cherished their relatively new democracy, and he was forced to back down.
Chiluba yielded to his hand-picked successor, Levy Mwanawasa, who soon turned on Chiluba and called for a corruption trial against him.
A London court convicted him of fraud in absentia and ordered him to repay millions of dollars in government funds, but Zambia did not honor the ruling. The trial was held in London because some of the alleged corruption occurred there.
Chiluba accused Britain, which had colonized Zambia, of interfering with the nation's judicial system.
Zambia acquitted him of additional corruption charges in 2009.