President Michael Sata died Tuesday at a London hospital at the age of 77, Zambian officials announced Wednesday. Vice President Guy Scott (pictured) took over as interim leader.
It is with a heavy heart that I announce the passing on of our beloved president,” Cabinet Secretary Roland Msiska said Wednesday in an address to the nation.
Sata, who was nicknamed “King Cobra” for his sharp tongue and brusque manner, died while undergoing treatment at London’s King Edward VII hospital, the Zambian government said.
Under Zambian law, fresh elections must be held within the next 90 days. Vice President Scott, 70, whose parents hail from Scotland, is not eligible to stand because Zambia’s 1996 constitution bars the election of heads of state with foreign parents.
“Dr Scott will act as president of the Republic of Zambia until the country goes for a presidential by-election” said Defence Minister Edgar Lungu.
The move makes Scott the first white president of an African nation since FW de Klerk ruled apartheid South Africa more than 20 years ago.
Scott issued a statement saying that national mourning for Sata would begin Wednesday. “We will miss our beloved president and comrade,” he said.
From train station cleaner to president
Sata was elected in 2011 to preside over his landlocked, southern African nation of 15 million people – a final triumph for a man who rose from sweeping London railway stations to stints as a policeman and then a trade unionist.
He rode to power largely capitalising on the resentment Zambians felt toward the Chinese resource firms active in the country, describing them as “infesters”.
Once in office he proved to be an authoritarian populist who cracked down on political foes, the media and sometimes even allies, earning him the “King Cobra” moniker. But his admirers saw him as a no-nonsense man of action.
Rumours of him being seriously ill persisted during his final months in office. Frequent denials by the government – and legal action against those who claimed he was dying – did nothing to dispel them.
His government recently cracked down on political opponents and journalists who reported on his long-suspected illness and his frequent “working trips” abroad, apparently for medical treatment.
Sata had not been seen in public since returning from the UN General Assembly last month, where he failed to make a scheduled speech.
Speculation over succession
Even before Sata’s death, analysts had said a power struggle for Zambia’s top job was already well under way within the ruling Patriotic Front party.
When Sata flew to London just over a week ago for treatment, he appointed Defence Minister Edgar Lungu as acting president. But Lungu, who also holds the justice minister portfolio, is seen as just one of several potential candidates within the faction-ridden party.
Former president Rupiah Banda, who is facing graft charges, has also hinted at a possible return to politics.
“I am legally eligible to stand,” he told AFP early this month, citing calls from his supporters to return to the political arena.
African leaders have begun paying tribute to Sata, with Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta hailing him as an “outstanding son of Africa”.
“He was gifted with unique, admirable abilities and strong values,” Kenyatta said in a statement.
“Zambia has lost not only a president who prioritised the poor, but also led the Zambian government at a time when the continent is working to reclaim its place in the global governance and economy,” South Africa’s ruling ANC party said in a statement.