He was the second Zambian head of state to die in office in six years. His predecessor, Mr Levy Mwanawasa, died in August 2008. It must be a harrowing experience that Zambians would lose two sitting presidents, almost in succession, in six years.
Born on July 6, 1937, Sata grew up in Mpika, in Zambia’s Northern Province, and worked as a police officer, railwayman and trade unionist during colonial rule. Sata began active politics Northern Rhodesia, as Zambia was known then, in 1963. In 1985, he became governor of Lusaka under the country’s founding president Kenneth Kaunda’s ruling United National Independence Party (UNIP), where he distinguished himself as astute political player.
He became a member of parliament for Kabwata constituency in Lusaka, and later broke away from UNIP to join the coalition Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) in 1991.
As a leader of Zambia’s Patriotic Front (PF), he was nomina-ted as minister in the government of President Frederick Chiluba, as part of a coalition deal. He was nicknamed “King Cobra” because of his sharp tongue as the opposition contender and rival to Mr Mwanawasa in the 2006 presidential election. Sata ran again against Mwanawasa’s successor, Rupiah Banda in 2008, and again lost, but defeated Banda in the 2011 election.
Sata was certainly a fiery politician and, according to the South African consultancy ETM, “a divisive figure” whose “increasingly authoritarian and ad-hoc policy measures against the crucial mining sector” had hampered investment in Zambia in recent years.” The result was that Zambia was losing much revenue from the operations of the mines.
Sata’s Cambridge-educated deputy and economist born in Zambia to Scottish parents, Guy Scott, made history when he was sworn in as Africa’s first white head of state, discounting South Africa’s apartheid-era President F.W. de Klerk. Scott will hold fort until election is held for a substantive president within 90 days.
Scott, 70, is ineligible to run in a presidential election because his parents were not born in Zambia, leaving defence minister, Edgar Lungu and finance minister, Alexander Chikwanda, the most likely contenders for the ruling PF’s ticket.
Scott ran into troubled waters when he dismissed Lungu, who is also PF’s secretary general. The streets of Lusaka erupted as rioters expressed anger at the development, which indicated a power struggle within the ruling party. The intensity of the violence forced Scott to reinstate Lungu. It had ignited a political firestorm that threatened to destabilise the country. The immediate rescinding of the sack order defused tension and brought back some semblance of normality to the streets.
It is puzzling why Scott took the hasty decision on Lungu who, as the outbreak of anger following his dismissal showed, is a very popular figure. In line with the Zambian Constitution, Scott cannot stand for president in the forthcoming election. If he acted to pave the way for a candidate that he may favour, it was ill-advised. He had the good sense however to recognise this and to check himself.
It is clearly important that a peaceful atmosphere is maintained as Zambians prepare to elect a new president to replace Mr Sata.
The African Union, the United Nations and other regional organisations should provide support to Zambia to help the country overcome the challenges that may come during this transition period and beyond.