A verdict is expected in the case against Frederick Chiluba, accused of "plundering the national economy" during his decade-long rule in the southern African state. He has already lost a civil court case that found he laundered around $50m (£30m) from his impoverished people to help fund lavish spending on designer clothes and shoes.
If, as expected, he is found guilty in Lusaka tomorrow on a criminal charge of stealing $500,000, Chiluba could face at least five years in jail. Legal experts believe the trial is the first of its kind in which an African leader has been prosecuted for corruption in his own country, and could set a precedent for bringing other so-called "big men" to justice.
"Today’s dictator could be tomorrow’s defendant," said Michael Sullivan QC, who led the successful civil action against Chiluba at the high court in London two years ago. "Politicians of all sorts are forever talking about the need to fight corruption; here is an historic example of the fight in action. It is widely believed that this trial will have great repercussions for the rest of Africa."
Chiluba, president between 1991 and 2001, was effectively the author of his own downfall when he anointed his successor, Levy Mwanawasa.
Mwanawasa smashed any sense of cosy patronage by launching an anti-corruption drive that probed Chiluba’s time in office. The outspoken Mwanawasa also strongly criticised Robert Mugabe, the president of neighbouring Zimbabwe.
Sullivan said: "He [Mwanawasa] was no puppet. He pursued the case as a lawyer, not for political reasons. He had a genuine feeling for the plight of his people."
Chiluba never forgave his successor, who died last year, and told the court in a statement: "The presidency in Africa is not cheap. People die to secure the presidency. But here was Mr Mwanawasa, who received it on a silver platter from my hands. He stabbed me in the back badly. I still bleed."
One of the most striking details to emerge from the civil case in London was Chiluba’s extravagant taste in clothes. Eleven metal trunks were discovered in a warehouse containing designer suits, monogrammed shirts, ties, silk pyjamas and dressing gowns and more than a hundred pairs of shoes, many in lurid colours and bearing Chiluba’s initials in brass. Each size-six pair had heels nearly 2in high – the former president stand just over 5ft tall.
Chiluba spent more than $500,000 in a single shop, Boutique Basile, in Geneva, the high court concluded in the 2007 case brought by Zambia’s attorney-general. Antonio Basile, the shop’s owner, testified in a separate trial last year that payment for the clothes sometimes arrived in suitcases full of cash.
Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with more than two-thirds of the population living on less than $1 a day.
Chiluba, a former bus conductor and trade union leader before ending the 27-year socialist rule of Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s first president, has vehemently denied the allegations, insisting he has been the victim of a political witch-hunt.
His wife, Regina, was convicted on corruption charges in March and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. His own trial has dragged on for six years due to procedural delays and his ill health.
Maxwell Nkole, the leader of the anti-corruption task force pursuing the case, said: "Zambians are watching anxiously. They have waited too long to have this result."
Nkole said he hoped the example would be followed elsewhere. "Everybody is paying attention to what is going on in Zambia. Hopefully other countries will have the courage to tackle high-level corruption. I think this sets a precedent."
Jon Elliott, Africa advocacy director of the pressure group Human Rights Watch, said: "The Chiluba trial now sends a strong signal to future leaders in Zambia and the region that they may be held accountable for crimes they commit when in office. So it is crucial that this trial sets the right precedent by being seen to be fair and just."
He added: "But there is still work to be done in Zambia: allegations that the government is targeting journalists that criticise its record cause concern. Freedom of expression is also a key to effective accountability."
Chiluba had top of the range 650 pairs of expensive shoose. These were Court exhibits –