LUSAKA • A British judge yesterday ordered former Zambian President Frederick Chiluba and 19 others to pay back $46m stolen while in office in a landmark strike against official corruption in Africa.
Judge Peter Smith, speaking live via satellite link from London, said he ordered that Chiluba and his associates must pay 85 per cent of the funds allegedly stolen from the national treasury within 14 days.
Details on the amount Chiluba himself would have to pay back would emerge in the next few days.
"At the end of the day he (Chiluba) was the president at the top of the control of government finances. He was uniquely positioned to prevent corruption ... instead of preventing corruption, he actively participated in it," Smith said in his ruling.
Political analysts said the judgement was a milestone in Africa's efforts to recover money lost to official corruption, seen as a major drag on the continent's development.
"To my knowledge, this is the first legal ruling of such a case against any head of state past or present," said Ayesha Kajee, head of the Democracy and Political Party Systems in Africa programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs.
"This will certainly make current heads of state sit up and be a little more careful and especially draw the line between private funds and public funds ... it is a good start and will send out a strong message."
Zambian officials say they sued Chiluba and his allies in a London court because they own properties purchased using stolen public funds in Britain, Belgium and other European nations, an accusation Chiluba denies.
The ruling backed charges by President Levy Mwanawasa's government that Chiluba and his associates stole the money during his years in power from 1991-2001.
Zambian prosecutors told Reuters that the amount Chiluba and co-accused would finally have to pay would rise after an assessment of damages and interest. It was unclear how the money would be obtained, although officials say overseas properties owned by the accused could be seized.
A number of former African leaders, including former Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko and Nigerian military strongman Sani Abacha, were accused of looting fortunes from their national treasuries while in office but analysts said most died before their cases could ever be brought to court.
"This is a milestone ... I am not aware of any case like this in Africa," said Jotham Moomba, a professor of history at the University of Zambia in Lusaka.
Chiluba, who hand-picked Mwanawasa to succeed him prior to the 2001 presidential elections, has denied any wrongdoing and accuses Mwanawasa of political persecution.
Zambia, in a separate local trial, has hit Chiluba with criminal charges of stealing $488,000 while in office. That trial stalled in May 2006 due to Chiluba's ill health.
In a statement, Chiluba said he would not recognise the authority of the British court to rule on Zambian matters.
"This action by the Zambia government in collusion with the British government has only served to undermine and ridicule the Zambian judiciary," Chiluba said."It is an affront to justice to run parallel trials simultaneously based on the same facts and circumstances as has been done in this case. It is in this regard that I have refused to submit myself to this court, its process and its consequent findings in the so-called judgement," Chiluba added.