Chiluba, the single man. (Feature: Zambia).
When President Chiluba ended his 33-year-old marriage to Vera in late September, he personally announced it -- in song. But there was no sad refrain, not even a hint of sorrow, as the words fell from his lips at a political rally in Kirwe, the hub of Zambia's Copperbelt region.
Rather, the president seemed to thrive in his new civil status. Zambia had no first lady -- so what?, he seemed to say.
"I will combine the roles," Chiluba told his party members, speaking mainly in Bemba, Zambia's major language. "I will also be the first lady. I will be cooking and making tea."
"Bushimbe nabumpesha mano, mayo bushimbe (bachelorhood has confused me)," Chiluba sang out (twice), urging the crowd to record his "golden voice".
Until that day, the president had maintained a dignified silence on his domestic affairs, dodging questions on whether his wife had moved out of State House.
"That is not a question," he had shot back at a tabloid reporter last year.
It was the vibrant Vera Chiluba's absence from public life that had caused all the speculation. She had vigorously championed humanitarian causes through her charity, HOPE (Help Other People Emerge) Foundation, which provides food relief and initiates income generation activities for orphans and widows, among others.
Criss-crossing the country on her community work, Vera had even helped raise her husband's profile. But then she suddenly disappeared from public view. And the president did not clear the air.
"I don't know, I have just arrived and I haven't been home yet," Chiluba said when asked at Lusaka airport last December whether his wife had left home.
Then, a week before his singing debut, State House finally broke the news: Ndola's Chifubu local court had granted the divorce the previous day.
"The president and the family were anxious that the matter is treated with due decorum to enable them to settle and come to terms with the new circumstances," a spokesman said.
The president did not want his divorce to be subjected to undue political comment, public debate and controversy to save his family from further anguish and pain. However, his light-hearted response to the divorce has aroused public controversy.
"It is embarrassing for President Chiluba to celebrate his divorce publicly," said Petronella Chisanga, vice chairperson of the NGOs-coordinating committee, NGOCC. "If this is what President Chiluba is setting as an example, then God help Zambia."
Petronella continued: "We [Zambian women] are quite saddened because we are made to believe that we are irrelevant and yet we are the custodians of morals in the country. President Chiluba's conduct confirms that marriages do not matter in a country he declared as a Christian nation."
Petronella said Zambians should start discussing the relevance of marriage because the president's behaviour could erode the seriousness of the institution.
Four days after the Stare House announced the divorce, over 800 women from various political parties and NGOs asked the president to change his mind.
At the close of a three-day conference on "Women in Politics" at the University of Zambia, Lusaka, the participants released a statement saying the loss from the divorce would far outweigh any personal gain for the president.
Conference organiser Florence Chola said that while women appreciated the fact that marriage was a private and personal matter, the private life of the president was a public matter because he was a public leader.
"This reality is also demonstrated by the decision of the state to announce the divorce to the nation," Florence said. "As women in a Christian nation, we have reverence for the God-given institution of marriage and believe every marriage is important -- including that of the head of state," she added.
As it happened, Vera Chiluba was there herself to address the convention. "A man even when he is king cannot be trusted, let alone be allowed to run a nation," she told the women assembled there.
Commenting on her then impending divorce, Vera said there were times in life, especially in women's lives, when the end of the toad was abrupt and unplanned.
"This is happening to me as you are all aware. After having ascended through my husband to a place of honour, that of First Lady, and the pomp that goes with it, [I now] have to face the humiliating experience of parting with my husband, and the negative publicity."
Though no reasons have been given for the divorce, a Lusaka businessman, Duncan Arch Malie, told the Lusaka High Court the day after the official announcement of the divorce, that the president suspected Vera of having a relationship with him (Malie).
Malie also said the charge of aggravated robbery he was facing had been brought because of his association with Vera, and strongly denied he had any relationship with her. "My association with her is mainly as a friend with some business interest," he said. "I used to donate some chitenge material (a piece of women's clothing that is wrapped around the waist) to the HOPE Foundation."
Frederick and Vera Chiluba have nine children -- Helena, Miloyan, Hortensia, Castro, Patrice, Ekman, Hulda, Fred Jnr and Vera Jnr.
They married during his humble days as a clerk with the Swedish firm, Atlas Copco, where he rose through the ranks to become credit manager, and then chairman of the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions, the apex labour movement, for 18 years -- until he became president in 1991.
Though Chiluba has publicly displayed indifference to the divorce, he is believed to be touched by the parting. After two terms in office, he will be stepping down at the end of the year when elections are held. But that has not stopped the rumour mill from grinding once again. A second marriage is said to be on the cards for him.
Meanwhile, according to New African's own correspondent in Lusaka, the opposition FDD is considering adopting Vera as its candidate for one of the hottest parliamentary seats in Ndola on the Copperbelt. The Ndola central constituency is currently held by Chiluba's right-hand man and top advisor, Eric Silwamba, who doubles as the presidential affairs minister.
During their year-long separation, Vera moved to the marital home in Ndola that the couple shared before Chiluba became president. She is a popular resident, especially among the women who constitute the majority of the voters in the constituency, many of whom now believe she was unfairly hounded out of State House, and that her subsequent divorce was based on unsubstantiated and scandalous rumours.
Since the divorce, Vera has openly declared her political inclination by attending the opposition FDD meetings on two occasions, including the recent convention that elected Christon Tembo as the FDD (Forum for Democracy and Development, a spin-off of Chiluba's MMD) presidential candidate for the coming elections.
On both occasions, Vera, who is not a physically imposing figure but a crowd-puller due to her down-to-earth and philanthropic activities, stole the show and received a standing ovation.
Since the meetings, Vera has been making frequent visits to Gen Tembo's house, but Tembo insists that Vera is just a close family friend and one of his wife's best friends.
Vera won the hearts of many underprivileged Zambians during her time at the State House, touting the remotest and poorest parts of the country donating food and clothes -- a venture that Zambian politicians have never undertaken.
She refused to affiliate her charity, HOPE Foundation, to the ruling MMD parry, insisting that HOPE operated on non-governmental funding. This made her a more popular first lady than her predecessor, Betty Kaunda.
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|Title Annotation:||President Frederick Chiluba|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2001|
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