Magazine article New African

Zambia: Adieu "King Cobra"-What Next?

Magazine article New African

Zambia: Adieu "King Cobra"-What Next?

Article excerpt

Zambia will hold presidential elections next month, following the death of President Michael Chilufya Sata a few days after the country's 50th independence anniversary celebrations. But even as the country mourned his passing, battle lines were being drawn in the succession struggle within the ruling Patriotic Front. What next after the death of "King Cobra"? Reginald Ntomba reports from Lusaka.

The country's Golden Jubilee celebrations had hardly subsided when Zambia went into mourning, just four days after independence day. On 28 October, news broke that the much loved, charismatic leader and Zambia's fifth president, Michael Sata, had died in a London hospital of an undisclosed illness.

"King Cobra", as he was popularly known due to his sharp tongue, is the second Zambian president to die in office. Levy Mwanawasa died in a French hospital in 2008.

President Sata's death was not unexpected, as he had been ailing for some time. Despite public concern about his deteriorating health earlier in the year, the government insisted the president was fine and working. So when he died, their denials simply caught up with them.

The 77-year-old president was a giant figure who graced Zambia's political landscape for over 30 years. A product of grassroots politics, he boasted of having traversed the entire terrain, as he rose through the ranks, serving as councillor, governor, member of parliament, and minister in several portfolios. He quit government in 2001 to form the Patriotic Front (PF) after failing to succeed Frederick Chiluba.

Sata did not win the presidency in 2001, 2006 or 2008. But being a tough and tireless campaigner he pressed on and destiny finally gave him what he wanted when he scooped it on the fourth attempt in 2011. This tenacity earned him praise from admirers and critics alike.

"If I were him, I would have given up but he didn't," remarked his priest, Fr. Charles Chilinda of St. Ignatius Catholic Church in Lusaka. Throughout his ten years in opposition, Sata highlighted the plight of the poor and built a strong bond with this segment of voters who saw him as their messiah. Many tributes noted his being at ease with ordinary people.

"I will remember him as a gallant son of Zambia who dedicated his entire life to uplifting the lives of the poor," said Emmanuel Chenda, cabinet minister and a close associate who worked with him for 34 years. "He always told us that we should leave this world better than we found it."

Charismatic and abrasive, Sata commanded a cult-like following and had his own way with the masses. This was testified to by the outpouring of grief at the grassroots level.

A key figure in the national epic, he was a highly visible and skilled political operator who used the press effectively to assert himself as a "man of action", a tag he acquired for his forthright and energetic approach to public affairs.

After two weeks of national mourning, Sata was buried on 11 November at Embassy Park, the presidential burial site in Lusaka. Presidents, vice presidents, former presidents, prime ministers, speakers of parliaments, the African Union, royals, and several other dignitaries from around the world attended his funeral.

His close friend, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, who received a rousing welcome at the funeral, described Sata as "a man of the people of Africa". African Union Commission Chairperson, Nkosazana Diamini-Zuma, remembered Sata as a frank person. "Whether in Tokyo or Brussels, he spoke his mind."

What next?

The strength, visibility and brand of the ruling party revolved around Sata. His death created a free-for-all atmosphere, as there had been no clear succession plan. The infighting that had characterised the party for over a year only provided a foretaste of what would happen when Sata --the glue that held the Patriotic Front together--was no longer there. …

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