Banda sang and danced with his supporters outside the courtroom after the ruling was read out. The 78-year-old, who had pleaded not guilty after being stripped of his presidential immunity under former president Michael Sata, was facing up to five years in jail.
“Let’s love one another and forgive each other,” he told reporters. “Let’s forget about this thing and move forward as a country.”
The defence welcomed the acquittal as a sign of the courts’ growing independence under President Edgar Lungu.
“Anyone who’s followed the trial realised that it was – as we had said always – political prosecution,” lawyer Robert Amsterdam said in a phone interview from London. “There was no substance to it. Clearly this was a vestige of a political grudge from President Sata, combined with a prosecutor who spent more time worrying about trying to slay political opponents than he did about rule of law.”
Some political analysts agree the corruption case was politically motivated – an opportunity for former president Sata who died in October to seek retribution for the way Banda treated him when he was president from 2008 to 2011.
“It was [Sata’s] way of saying that he was in charge and that [Banda] had to dance to his tune,” said McDonald Chipenzi, executive director of Fodep (Foundation for Democratic Process), a Lusaka NGO.
Anti-corruption activists fear that Banda’s acquittal – despite its apparent political overtones – could weaken the fight against graft.
Transparency International Zambia is urging the state to appeal against the ruling “immediately”.
“It has become common that high-profile politicians with corruption cases in our country are more often than not left off the hook despite offending society,” the group said in a statement posted on Facebook. “This trend has negative ripple effects on non-politicians and the rest of society.”
Banda’s defence has taken a dim view of anti-corruption crusaders’ role in the former president’s case. “I hope those who shout aggressively about corruption start to recognise that not every corruption prosecution is good for either democracy or the rule of law,” Amsterdam said. "We need to stop prosecutions that are done as international campaigns to make donors happy.”
Banda, who won the presidential election as a candidate of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy in 2008, now has warm relations with the ruling Patriotic Front where he has “godfather” status, according to Chipenzi.
His relations with President Lungu are especially good. Both men hail from the same region and Lungu only a few days ago used a Zambian expression suggesting that he considered Banda as a “relative”.
Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011