Zambian President Michael Sata has died at the age of 77 in London where he had been receiving treatment for an undisclosed illness, the Zambian government announced.
Concern over Sata’s health had been mounting since June when he disappeared from the public eye without explanation and was then reported to be receiving medical treatment in Israel. He left Zambia on October 19th for medical treatment, accompanied by his wife and family members.
“As you are aware the President was receiving medical attention in London,” cabinet secretary Roland Msiska announced on state television. “The head of state passed away on October 28th. President Sata’s demise is deeply regretted.”
“I urge all of you to remain calm, united and peaceful during this very difficult period,” Mr Msiska added.
The President’s death comes just days after Zambia celebrated the 50th anniversary of independence from the UK. Defence Minister Edgar Lungu, secretary general of Sata’s Patriotic Front party, had to lead those celebrations in Sata’s absence.
For supporters of the Catholic father of eight he was a no-nonsense man of action. For critics, he was an authoritarian populist, an abrasive figure nicknamed ‘King Cobra’ because of his venomous tongue.
Michael Sata rose to political prominence in the 1980s quickly earning a reputation as the hardest-working governor while in charge of Lusaka and as a populist man of action. During colonial rule Mr Sata had worked as a police officer, railway man and trade unionist and after independence he spent time in London, working as a railway porter, and, back in Zambia, with a taxidermy company. He became involved in politics via the trade union movement, and later became more firmly involved with the United National Independence Party. Years as a party apparatchik earned him the governorship of the capital, Lusaka, under Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda. He later served in several ministerial portfolios, but tensions with Kaunda saw him jump ship to the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, which he in turn left to form the breakaway Patriotic Front in 2001.
He won presidential elections in Zambia in 2011 at the fourth attempt, and at first it looked as if he would keep promises to tackle corruption and create jobs and prosperity. However, his term in office was marred by a crackdown on political opposition and a decline in the economy. In January 2014, an opposition politician was charged with defamation for calling him a potato. In June the authorities charged three opposition activists for claiming that he was dying.
His attacks on foreign mining companies sometimes rattled investors. Although he toned down the nationalist, anti-Chinese rhetoric that finally helped him oust Banda in a 2011 election, he would still deliver occasional rants at the foreign mining companies in the Copper Belt. In 2013, he threatened to remove the mining licence of Konkola Copper mines, Zambia’s biggest private employer, because of plans to lay off 1,500 workers. During the row, Konkola’s foreign chief executive had his work permit revoked.
“President Sata has been a divisive figure for Zambia on the economic front, espousing increasingly authoritarian and ad hoc policy measures against the crucial mining sector in recent years, which has hampered investment,” South African consultancy ETM said.
“The President’s passing could make way for a more reformist administration and help to remove broader policy uncertainties.”
Zambian Vice-President Guy Scott has been named acting leader following Mr Sata’s death. Mr Scott, who is of Scottish descent, becomes Africa’s first white head of state for many years.
In a brief televised address Mr Scott confirmed his appointment. “The period of national mourning will start today. We will miss our beloved president and comrade” .
Presidential elections to choose a permanent successor will be held within 90 days, Defence Minister Edgar Lungu said.