LUSAKA, Zambia – Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa died in a French hospital Tuesday at 59, more than six weeks after he was hospitalized for a stroke, the country's vice president said.
Mwanawasa had a reputation for integrity and won praise for his anti-corruption and economic modernization drive, although he failed to lift the Zambian people out of crushing poverty.
He also broke the traditional silence of African leaders toward his autocratic neighbor, Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, which encouraged other African presidents to show their displeasure.
"It is with deep sorrow that I have to tell the people of Zambia that our president ... has passed away this morning," Vice President Rupiah Banda said on radio and television. He announced a weeklong period of national mourning.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Mwanawasa's death "a great loss for the African continent" and for democracy.
Banda did not give the cause of death; he said Mwanawasa had taken a turn for the worse on Monday.
The president was taken to Percy Military Hospital in Paris after he collapsed June 30 on the eve of an African Union summit in Egypt.
Mwanawasa described neighboring Zimbabwe as a "catastrophe," and criticized the trampling of democracy in the 2008 presidential elections. Mugabe was long revered as an African independence hero, but the softly spoken Mwanawasa — Zambia's third president since independence from Britain in 1964 — was not bound by the liberation movement ties of older African leaders.
His death leaves a power vacuum in Zambia, one of the world's biggest copper producers. Under the country's constitution, elections are meant to be held within 90 days.
Born on Sept. 3, 1948 in the town of Mufulira in northern Zambia, Mwanawasa graduated from the University of Zambia and practiced law before going into government service. After a stint as solicitor general in 1986, under Zambia's first president, Kenneth Kaunda, Mwanawasa soon became a key figure in the push for multiparty democracy.
When Frederick Chiluba defeated Kaunda in Zambia's first multiparty elections in 1991, Mwanawasa was appointed vice president, but then quit the post, complaining of corruption.
Even so, Chiluba later tapped Mwanawasa to be his successor. Mwanawasa won the presidency in 2001 in an election marred by allegations of fraud, and was re-elected with 43 percent in 2006 in a poll generally regarded as transparent and fair.
As he sought to establish his legitimacy in his first term of office, Mwanawasa seized on anti-corruption and economic reforms and targeted Chiluba, who was found guilty in a London court of stealing US$46 million from state coffers during his 10-year rule.
Mwanawasa won praise from the business community and middle class Zambians as well as many Western donors and investors for his free market policies.
He tamed inflation and, after years of economic stagnation, presided over a period of growth helped by a boom in global copper prices. His economic austerity and market-opening policies drew support from the United States, the World Bank and lending institutions who agreed in 2005 to cancel nearly all of Zambia's $7.2 billion foreign debt.
But critics accused him of turning a blind eye to the plight of the poor in a country where less than 20 percent of the population has formal employment and the majority lives below the poverty line. Zambia's sprawling townships, homes of the urban poor, became the power base of his populist rival Michael Sata.
Riots broke out briefly after 2006 elections when Sata supporters accused the electoral commission of manipulating the results. Mwanawasa successfully appealed for calm.
"The peace we currently enjoy should not be taken for granted," he said. "Some political parties are disrupting this peace. All peace-loving Zambians must rise and say 'No' to all those preaching violence and chaos in this country."
Opponents said Mwanawasa pandered to the whims of Western donors; Mwanawasa countered that it was thanks to the forgiveness of foreign debt that he was able to increase spending on education and health.
Sata and other critics also said he was too subservient to China, which poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Zambia's copper sector.
Mwanawasa criticized the West for failing to follow through on promises of increased aid and trade.
Africa "is in the hands of Europe" but needs China's economic aid, Mwanawasa told an audience of American students in 2007.
"You people in the West redeem yourself before you begin attacking China," Mwanawasa said.
He is survived by his wife and several children. Funeral plans were not immediately announced.