In the storied history of Africa's post-colonial rulers, Zambia's President Frederick Chiluba writes his own chapter with an outspoken Christian testimony. "We humble ourselves and admit our guilt," he prayed before a national audience at his first inaugural ceremony in 1991. "We repent from all our wicked ways of idolatry, witchcraft, the occult, immorality, injustice and corruption, and all other sins that have violated your righteous laws. We turn away from all these and renounce it all in Jesus' name."
Speaking without notes, the president then declared Zambia "a Christian nation" and pledged to "submit myself as president to the Lordship of Jesus Christ."
Mr. Chiluba came to Christ and came to power from a prison cell. Imprisoned for political activity as a trade union leader, he read Hebrews 11 from a Gideon Bible only hours before his arrest and said it later led to his conversion. A political movement formed around him when, upon his release in 1981, he publicly forgave then-President Kenneth Kaunda for his detention. Mr. Kaunda had declared a state of emergency and suspended constitutional rights. Ten years later Mr. Chiluba unseated Mr. Kaunda from a 30-year reign.
Since taking office, however, Mr. Chiluba has increasingly followed the checkered pattern of neighboring leaders. "He unfortunately is afflicted with that same African disease, in that he comes to power and doesn't want to leave," says George Ayittey, associate professor of economics at American University and an expert on Africa. Questions about Mr. Chiluba's 1996 reelection and the torque of his grip on power have tarnished his public confession even as the fruits of his testimony are ripening.
His reelection last November was debated by observers because of charges of vote-buying and unfair election practices. He took office routinely, however, after threats of violence and election boycotts failed to materialize.
Mr. Chiluba was further criticized, at home and abroad, for engineering a constitutional amendment last June that made it illegal for presidential candidates to be foreign-born. The move was seen as a direct hit at Mr. Kaunda, now leader of the opposition Zambia Democratic Congress, who was born in Malawi.
So is Mr. Chiluba a good Christian democrat or a tyrant?
"Both are correct," says Mr. Ayittey. "He has done a lot of things to move Zambia toward a free market system, but he is not a true democrat."
Those who would like to see his brand of Christ-centered democracy succeed, however, are encouraged by Mr. Chiluba's record.
They say he is doing something no Western democrat would attempt, putting biblical faith at the forefront of public policy. And he is doing it in the aftermath of 30 years of disastrous socialism under Mr. Kaunda.
Roads and other forms of infrastructure are steadily improving. Beggars on the streets of Lusaka, the capital, are being replaced with young men running a labyrinth of canvas stalls as small businesses prosper. State-owned conglomerates are being privatized. After independence from Britain in 1964, Mr. Kaunda nationalized three-fourths of the economy, including coal mines, breweries, and the largest Zambian company, Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines.
David Stevens, executive director of the Christian Medical and Dental Society, has traveled to Zambia four times since Mr. Chiluba took office and has worked in several southern African countries. His most recent trip coincided with the presidential election last November, when he led a team of 20 doctors, dentists, and other medical personnel into six prisons.
"I'm feeling very positive about what I see in Zambia. He inherited a corrupt system and financial disaster after all the years of socialism."
Surveys of religious attitudes in Zambia show three-quarters of respondents identifying themselves as Christian. The open cultural acceptance of Christian ideas is something fresh for post-Christian Westerners. Lusaka boasts a highly regarded Christian radio station, although many media outlets are still state-owned. Dr. Stevens said his team's arrival rated front-page coverage in Zambia's largest paper, the Daily Mail. News of Prison Fellowship International's growing work in Zambia rated this recent headline in the Sunday Times: "Depend on God to fight crime."
Mr. Chiluba, says Dr. Stevens, is overcoming the traditional African approach to government which often puts clan interests above national priorities and ends in cronyism and corruption.
"I would throw my vote--cautiously--for Chiluba," said Dr. Stevens. "The changes are real, but there are enormous power bases that can't be turned around in a short period of time."
In the past five years, according to Dr. Stevens, not one medical school graduate has chosen to remain in Zambia. Now that's changing. The Minister of Health, also identified as a Christian, is increasing the availability of medicine, reducing the bureaucracy in health care--an unpopular move--and improving prospects for new doctors. Last summer Dr. Stevens met for the first time with several graduating doctors who will remain to work in major hospitals.
Mr. Ayittey warns that government corruption remains to be conquered. One cabinet minister has been involved in drug smuggling. Another recently tried to coerce a policeman into arresting a newspaper editor.
Zambia has come far from a one-party state but has further to go. Average income is improving, but inflation threatens to wipe out the gains. The young men in the street markets clutch stacks of the local kwacha currency in their hands, and all prices are rounded to the nearest thousand or hundred, as the currency has fallen to a point where coins are worthless.
Still, the annual budget speech of Zambia's finance minister last week would have been music even to American ears. Finance Minister Ronald Penz announced a cut in value-added tax and projected that inflation would be halved in the coming year in anticipation of the government's first budget surplus.