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LUSAKA, Zambia — As the gleaming black Mercedes-Benz pulled up to the courthouse, an aide rushed to the passenger door, bowed deeply and then ceremoniously opened it. A foot, finely shod in a dove-gray shoe, appeared, followed by the rest of the man, Frederick Chiluba.

FTJ arriving at a court in Lusaka in May for a hearing on charges of corruption - Picture by Mariella Furrer for The New York Times

FTJ arriving at a court in Lusaka in May for a hearing on charges of corruption - Picture by Mariella Furrer for The New York Times

For a decade, he was president of Zambia. Now, more than seven years after he left office, a court is deciding whether he stole from his impoverished people. A verdict is to be announced July 20. 

As common thieves and drug peddlers milled about, Mr. Chiluba strode through the corridors to his hearing, shaking hands, smiling magnanimously, throwing an arm around a co-defendant to chuckle over a private joke. Amid men in dingy shirts and worn trousers, he was impeccably dressed in a double-breasted charcoal suit, with a red silk handkerchief peeking from his breast pocket and a gold, diamond-studded watch glinting at his wrist. 

But once he was in the dock, his jovial demeanor evaporated. In the thin, sickly light that filtered in from narrow windows one recent morning, Mr. Chiluba replied somberly when the magistrate asked why his lawyers had failed to present a written summation on time. 

“I wasn’t aware, your honor, until today that the submissions are not made,” he said. 

Mr. Chiluba is a rarity in Africa, a Big Man brought low by corruption charges. He says he has done nothing illegal, but his many critics say his fall was brought on by the usual sins of the powerful — greed, vanity and pride — and a major tactical blunder: he underestimated the man he hand-picked in 2001 to succeed him as president, the plodding, diligent lawyer Levy Mwanawasa. 

Mr. Mwanawasa died last year after an illness. But his pursuit of Mr. Chiluba outlived him. 

“Chiluba called himself the political engineer and he believed Mwanawasa would be his puppet,” said Mark Chona, who was appointed by Mr. Mwanawasa to lead a task force to investigate abuses of the Chiluba era. “But he misread Mwanawasa. For us, it was divine providence.” 

Even as Mr. Chiluba awaited his judgment, his wife, Regina, was convicted on corruption charges in March and sentenced to three and a half years in prison. 

Mr. Chiluba already faced a London civil court judgment in 2007 in a case brought by Zambia’s attorney general. He is still contesting the payment of damages. 

In that case, Justice Peter Smith of the High Court ruled that the former president owed Britain $57 million for, among other things, expenditures from a secret intelligence agency bank account in London that was “set up primarily to steal government money.” 

“He should be ashamed,” Sir Peter wrote. 

The judge concluded that though Mr. Chiluba had a salary of only about $10,000 a year during his decade in office, he spent more than $500,000 in a single shop, Boutique Basile, in Geneva. 

“The president (unlike the emperor) needs to be clothed,” Sir Peter archly noted in his judgment. 

The shop owner, Antonio Basile, testified last year that payment for the clothes sometimes arrived in suitcases stuffed with cash. 

The goods are now stored in battered metal trunks by Zambia’s anticorruption task force. There are piles of designer suits, monogrammed dress shirts and elegant ties, silk pajamas and dressing gowns. 

But most remarkable are more than 100 pairs of size 6 shoes, many affixed with Mr. Chiluba’s initials in brass. He is just a little over five feet tall, and each pair has heels close to two inches high. They are a riot of color and texture: jade-green lizard skin and burgundy suede, cream-colored ostrich and lustrous red silk. 

As his second term drew to a close, Mr. Chiluba claimed that a popular clamor had arisen for him to stay in office. A third term would have required amending the Constitution. But by then, Mr. Chiluba, a former trade union leader elected as a reformer, led a government renowned for corruption. Civic groups and churches organized to stop him, and succeeded. 

Not long after he withdrew from contention, The Post, an independent newspaper, quoted a member of Parliament as saying that Mr. Chiluba was a thief. The state pressed charges of criminal libel against The Post’s editor and the politician. 

The legal maneuver backfired. Mutembo Nchito, the brash young lawyer representing The Post pro bono, effectively put Mr. Chiluba’s integrity on trial. He won access to records of the intelligence agency bank account in London, and discovered evidence of generous payments to Mr. Chiluba’s children, the boutique and even the chief justice of the Zambian Supreme Court, among others. 

“You never expect to find a smoking gun,” he said in wonderment. 

But before Mr. Nchito could introduce the bank records in evidence, he needed President Mwanawasa’s permission. 

Mr. Mwanawasa, who could have cited national security to hush up the scandal, instead gave Mr. Nchito permission to use the records, led an effort to strip Mr. Chiluba of immunity and named Mr. Chona to head the task force on corruption. Mr. Nchito was hired to prosecute criminal charges against Mr. Chiluba, who was accused of stealing about $500,000. 

The task force, now headed by Maxwell Nkole, has won convictions against Ms. Chiluba and former military commanders, among others. 

Mr. Mwanawasa not only pushed the prosecution of a leader from his own party but also, in the final months of his life, sharply criticized President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe for his violent repression of the opposition there. Despite his staid manner, Mr. Mwanawasa proved himself a maverick, challenging the patronage politics and tolerance for authoritarian rule that have marred many postcolonial African nations, historians and analysts say. 

Mr. Chiluba, in unsworn testimony earlier this year, expressed outrage at what he saw as Mr. Mwanawasa’s rank betrayal. 

“The presidency in Africa is not cheap,” Mr. Chiluba said, according to a transcript. “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.” 

In his testimony, Mr. Chiluba denied that he had ever stolen public money. Instead, he said that he had spent money donated in political campaigns by corporate interests and other “well-wishers.” The identity of these contributors was secret because of what Mr. Chiluba called “the golden rule of anonymity.” The donors, he said, were made aware that “the party’s president has personal needs.” 

After the recent hearing, Mr. Chiluba walked quickly to his Mercedes, waving off questions with a flick of his hand. 

Back in the courtroom, Moffat Kabamba, a skinny 21-year-old in windbreaker and sneakers, followed Mr. Chiluba into the dock. He was charged with swiping a cellphone and a bicycle. He mournfully confided that he had decided to confess because he was guilty. 

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company