Living Next Door to King Cobra: Zambian President Michael Sata Is a Man Not Afraid to Speak His Mind-To the Point Where Some Say He Lacks the Etiquette of Diplomacy and Good Neighbourliness. on a Visit to Zimbabwe at the End of April, the Man Affectionately Called King Cobra Was in His Element, Charming His Hosts with His Franc-Parler Tichaona Zindoga Reports from Harare

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FOR MANY PEOPLE, ZAMBIAN President Michael Sata, who came into office last September, is simply an enigma. He is called "King Cobra" for his more-than-candid comments on different subjects. It could be tricky living next door to King Cobra--just ask Malawi.

When it comes to Zimbabwe, the man has shown where his heart lies--even with a little venom. He marked his three-day visit to his southern neighbours at the end of April with jokes. Sata cracked jokes at the National Heroes Acre, a mausoleum for heroes of the liberation struggle, and said more women should die so they would be buried there.

He joked about the "big" Youth Minister Saviour Kasukuwere who he derided for keeping a shaven head. "In our days," Sata said, "it was a practice for a man who was either coming from jail or mourning his wife".

When during a State House dinner President Mugabe invited the two first ladies for a photo-shoot, Sata retorted that they could join the two leaders later. "Let them wait," he joked, "after all they joined us later in our lives."

Mugabe called Zambia and Zimbabwe "Siamese twins" and San called Zimbabwe his second home. This kind of camaraderie was not so obvious last September when the reign of King Cobra began.

It was speculated, even feared, that he would be "tough" with Mugabe, the man he had incidentally idolised for his anti-imperial struggles against Britain, particularly since 2000 when Mugabe started his controversial land reform programme.

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Zambia under Presidents Levy Mwanawasa and Rupiah Banda was viewed as increasingly putting pressure on Mugabe as the price for Zambia's continued receipt of aid from the West.

Sata's alleged turning down of an invitation to officially open the Zanu-PF annual conference in December last year seemed to add to the discomfiture.

But then Sata's Patriotic Front party envoy to the conference expressed admiration for Zimbabwe's revolutionary party, saying Sata's PF owed its name to Zanu-PF,

A few days later, Sata met Mugabe in the Zambian border town of Living-stone, and "discussed unity"; and "unity of Africa'', in the same week as the Zambian president met former US president, George W. Bush.

In office, Bush had been one of Mugabe's chief tormentors, having promulgated the destructive Zimbabwe Democracy and Economic Recovery Act of zoos that imposed stringent economic sanctions on the country, which largely led to the implosion of Zimbabwe's economy between 2005 and 2009.

However, Sata has not endeared himself to the Zimbabwean prime minister, Morgan Tsvangirai, and his MDC-T party. Tsvangirai "diplomatically" avoided Sata during the latter's Zimbabwe cameo, and his office had an alibi for Sata's official opening of the Zimbabwe International Trade Fair in Bulawayo.

Tsvangirai also did not attend the State House dinner in honour of the visiting Zambian leader.

Last January, in an interview with a British newspaper, San said of the Zimbabwean prime minister:

"We do not know the policies of Morgan [Tsvangirai] ... he has other people speaking for him, rather than speaking for himself. 'There will be elections [in Zimbabwe] and someone else will take over, but not someone imposed by the Western countries."

When Sata was elected last year, a columnist at the Sunday Mail, the biggest weekly in Zimbabwe, Munyaradzi Huni, recalled expansively a 2007 interview in which King Cobra expressed his views on Zimbabwe. …