Michael Chilufya Sata, the King Cobra. Several faces, multiples lives, numerous angles, one man. The life and times of the Zambian president, whose death was announced yesterday is a story of your archetypal African politician.
First, his death only comes to seal the envelop of speculation. There is something about African governments and cageyness with their leaders’ health and then the unwritten law of the land. A flight to a top health facility outside their own territory for medical attention. Sata died at 77 in a London hospital. Former Zambian president Levy Mwanawasa too breathed his last in a hospital miles away from motherland in 2008.
Back to the speculation around the death, concerns about the elderly Sata’s health grew during 2014, and some suggested that he was no longer running the government due to his condition. The government denied that.
“He stopped appearing in public, which seemed jarringly uncharacteristic for the notably extroverted and outspoken President. Observers thought he seemed unwell when he opened Parliament on September 19 2014, and over the course of the following month he failed to appear in public again,” Zambian Watch Dog reported yesterday. Opposition leaders pointed accusatory fingers at the government for lying about Sata’s health. He left the country in October in what government sources called a mere medical checkup, leaving Edgar Lungu, the Minister of Defense, in charge of the country in his absence.
But there is another angle to that story. While the opposition last week put the government on spot over the president’s health, memories of Zambians and those who closely follow politics on the continent dashed to 2008. In that year, Levi Mwanawasa, Zambia’s third post-colonial leader, was hospitalised after suffering from a stroke during an African Union summit. Who was drumming up national anxiety about his death? Michael Sata. He was at the time, a virulent opposition figure, akin to our own Dr Kizza Besigye or Kenya’s Raila Odinga.
Back then, Sata made headlines in sections of the media in Africa when he demanded that cabinet send a team of doctors to examine Mwanawasa, if only to confirm he is dead or alive. Indeed, he died a month later but that bold move in a society where humanity and death take an almost sacred intersection, earned him hatred from Maureen Mwanawasa who ordered the politician out of her husband’s burial. Of course Sata hit the headlines when he spat venom at the widow for “acting inappropriately.”
Rise to the presidency
Sata’s rise to the presidency was an achievement after one too many attempts at the country’s most powerful office but more significantly, a triumphant story of a man who rose from a sweeper to Head of State. He rose from police officer, railway man and trade unionist in the colonial era. He would later work as a sweeper in London and porter at Victoria Railway station before launching himself into politics after independence. A graduate of political science from Atlantic International University in 2011, the father of eight is a man whose story resonates in more ways than one with a number of African leaders.
In fact, some analysts have drawn the parallel of Sata to explain why former Forum for Democratic Change president Dr Kizza Besigye still has a chance of taking the throne at Uganda’s State House.
Dr Besigye has tossed the dice thrice, Sata tossed the same twice, and succeeded the third time. The social democrat who led the Patriotic Front, a potent force in the southern African nation, became the fifth President of Zambia on September 23, 2011.
When his presidential ambitions started to itch, Sata exited former President Frederick Chiluba’s Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) government where he was minister in the 1990s, joining the opposition in 2001. He left a rather bitter man after Chiluba anointed Mwanawasa as his preferred presidential candidate.
By 2006, Sata had positioned himself as the most viable candidate to score victory against Mwanawasa in 2006 general elections. He branded himself as a man of and for the poor Zambians who were already embittered by Mwanawasa’s economic reform agenda. Zambian media reports that while other candidates took to personal attacks and insults, a common campaign phenomena in Africa, Sata often veiled his scathing attacks. In one of the rallies it is reported, he ripped a cabbage apart as his supporters cheered in awe. It was later interpreted as a mockery of Mwanawasa’s speech impediment, thanks to a 1992 car accident. He did not spare the Chinese whom he accused of conniving with Mwanawasa, alongside other Western economic power houses, to buy off Zambia. When he referred to Hong Kong as a nation and Taiwan as a sovereign state, China felt he had crossed the line. The world’s latest economic shaker and mover, with interests in Zambia’s copper reserves, threatened to cut relations with Zambia if the fire spitting politician won the presidential race. He lost.
When Mwanawasa died in 2008, he paved way for yet another contest for Sata whom he reconciled with before he breathed his last. He lost that bye-election to Rupiah Banda.
After 10 years in opposition, Sata defeated Banda, the incumbent, to win the September 2011 presidential election with a plurality of the vote.
When he lost today, Sata always conceded defeat the next day, and returned to the drawing board to prepare for the next election.
It was only the contest he lost to Banda in 2008 that he rubbished as a fraud. In that election he also toned down his anti-Chinese rhetoric though according to Zambia media reports, the investment climate in the country has never been less friendly.
There are not really many achievements to chest thump about for a man whose term in office was cut short rather suddenly, scarcely before he could assert himself in power. However, during the 49th independence anniversary last year, founding President Kenneth Kaunda described him as a great man who had saved Zambia from collapse.
“You are a great man. I am saying you are a great man because you have done a lot in the two years you have been in government. You have changed the face of Zambia. You have saved it from collapse. You put Zambia on the World map when you co-hosted UN-World Tourism Conference,” he said, adding, “In the whole world, there are only two black Presidents with white vice-presidents and these are Michael Sata and Barack Obama”.
Additional reporting from Internet
Can Sata’s white deputy become president?
Can Sata’s white deputy become president?
Can Zambia’s white Vice President lead the transition?
The question grappling Zambia right now, Elias Munshya, a lawyer wrote in an article entitled, After the Cobra: What does the law say about Vice-President Guy Scott?, “is whether the nation’s Vice-President Guy Lindsay Scott satisfies the constitution to be an Acting President for 90-days before calling a special election to replace Michael Sata.”
Perhaps, the sole white VP in Africa, Guy Scott’s father and mother are Scottish. According to the Zambian constitution, one can only satisfy the constitutional requirements to be a presidential candidate if both parents of the candidate are “Zambian by birth or descent”.
Intriguingly, when Mr Sata was hospitalised, he passed the mantle of the country’s presidency to his defence minister and not VP as the case would ordinarily have been or just like Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta handed over to William Ruto for a day or two as he flew to the International Criminal Court for trial.
Was the ailing president trying hard to stay away from possible controversy that would accrue from legal questions as to whether he was legally right to hand over to Guy Scott? Sata gave no reason for this rather odd move. As of yesterday, the country’s cabinet was in deliberations to forge a way forward. Legal minds in Zambia anticipate suits challenging Scott taking over for the next 90 days.
Zambians have a history of challenging the citizenship of its leaders. Already, there is a supreme court precedent set by the famous 1998 Lewanika and Others v Chiluba case in which the court was asked to disqualify Chiluba from the presidency because his father was “not a Zambian by birth or descent”. The court ruled that even if Chiluba’s father were a Zairian or a Mozambican; Chiluba would still satisfy the constitutional requirement of having parents being “Zambian by birth or descent”. The reason for the ruling is based on several principles. “First, the Supreme Court erected a wall of citizenship and held that the republic of Zambia was actually created on October 24 1964. Having been created on this date, those who were ordinarily resident in Zambia on this day became citizens of Zambia,” the lawyer analysed, adding, “For such people, there is no need to inquire into the citizenship of their parentage, as none of their parents would qualify as “Zambians” because there was no nation called “Zambia” before that.”
After the ruling in Lewanika and others v Chiluba, the question is whether the ratio decidendi (reason for the court’s decision) of the case is applicable to Guy Scott’s situation. Guy Scott was born in the then Northern Rhodesia, and acquired Zambian citizenship at independence in 1964. Having acquired that citizenship, “there is a legal wall that makes the citizenship of his parents invisible and inconsequential to his legal status as a founding citizen of Zambia. And, even if his parents continued being citizens of Britain, it should not affect his own satisfaction of the Zambian constitution since the “Zambian by birth or descent” requirement does not apply to him and to many others who became citizens of Zambia when the nation was created in 1964.”
Following the Chiluba case, it is clear that just like the former president satisfied the constitution in spite of the possibility of a Mozambican or a Zairian father, Scott would also satisfy the constitution in spite of his British father.
But as the lawyer argues in his article, this is only a legal question answered and often time, especially in Africa, the political question has its own place in determining what direction events take.
Some African presidents who died while in office recently
Ghanaian president John Atta Mills died aged 68 on July 24, 2012.
Malawi president Bingu wa Mutharika died on April 5 , 2012 aged 78.
Meles Zenawi Asres was the Prime Minister of Ethiopia from 1995 until his death in 2012.
Nigeria’s president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua passed away in Saudi Arabia aged 58 in 2010.
Levy Mwanawasa, the third president of Zambia died in 2008.