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King Cobra loses his venom
28 August 2014

Guy Scott was conspicuous by his pallor as the only white leader present at United States (US) President Barack Obama’s US-Africa summit in Washington earlier this month.

The rather eccentric Scott – who last year earned himself a certain local notoriety by calling South Africans ‘backward’ and suggesting that President Jacob Zuma was doing no better for most South Africans than the last white president, FW de Klerk – was deputising for his boss, Zambian President Michael Sata.

A few weeks later, Vice President Scott had to do that again, this time at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit. The official explanation for Sata’s absences has been that he is saving money, but this is not a very convincing excuse, especially for the SADC summit, which took place literally just across the river at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

Sata’s absences have inevitably fuelled the growing speculation that he is gravely – some even say terminally – ill with prostate cancer. Late in June his office announced that he had flown to Israel for a ‘working holiday,’ but the more likely reason was to receive medical treatment, according to many sources.

Some in Zambia say he has been bed-ridden for about two months. ‘He is thin and gaunt and wears a vacant stare that was not part of him until now,’ said one journalist. Another, though, believes it is possible that Sata is slowly recovering after his treatment in Israel.

The official explanation for Sata’s absences has been that he is saving money

The rumours around Sata’s health are rather eerily reminiscent of those around Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe who, of course, repeatedly defies the frequent reports of his impending demise by popping up again – looking ever more stubbornly hale and hearty, despite his nine decades on this planet – as he did at the SADC summit where he took the organisation’s chair.

Yet the speculation around Sata’s health sounds more plausible and less like wishful thinking, even if he is Mugabe’s junior by some 13 years. The Zambian government would not be helping matters by withholding credible information. Some speculate, though, that it is doing this because admitting that Sata may have become medically unfit for office would mean having to hand over the reins to someone else.

Who that someone would be if Sata became incapacitated is also not clear. Would Scott automatically take over until the 2016 elections – incidentally becoming Africa’s first white president in at least 20 years? (Even if, as some reports suggest, he really doesn’t want the job.) Or would Sata be allowed to anoint a successor? Or would the cabinet choose one? Most observers believe that Sata’s successor, if he were to choose, would be Justice Minister Wynter Kabimba, who is also Secretary-General of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), but more sceptical observers say that Kabimba may have spread that rumour himself.

That reflects another similarity with what is happening on the other side of the Zambezi; the looming departure of the incumbent is stimulating a fierce succession struggle. Pitted against Kabimba and his supporters, most analysts agree, is a faction led by Finance Minister, Alexander Chikwanda.

The divisions between the factions are evidently deepened by personal, tribal and ideological animosities. Chikwanda’s faction seeks to promote the interests of the Bemba ethnic group. It also seeks to advance neo-liberal economics, by contrast with Kabimba’s faction, which, like Sata himself, leans towards more socialist, statist politics – at least in theory.

The succession struggle could, in theory, have significant implications for the economy

Yet another similarity with Zimbabwe is that the succession battle seems to be taking on a dynastic flavour. In Harare, Mugabe – at least according to one scenario – has been playing off the rival Emmerson Mnangagwa and Joice Mujuru factions against each other for long enough now to have allowed his young wife, Grace, to position herself as a possible successor by winning the top job in Zanu-PF’s Women’s League, and for her to be able to count on the support of their now-grown-up son, Robert Mugabe, a military man.

In Zambia, according to the journal Africa Confidential, the Chikwanda faction is promoting Sata’s son Mulenga Sata, mayor of Lusaka and Chairperson of the Lusaka District PF, as his father’s successor to foil Kabimba’s ambitions.

Because of the ideological differences between the rival factions jostling to succeed Sata, the succession struggle could, in theory, have significant implications for investors and the economy. Some observers say that whoever takes over will be equally bound by PF policy. However, that policy allows considerable latitude for interpretation. 

After 10 years in dogged opposition, including three failed attempts at the presidency, Sata came into office in 2011 bearing the nickname King Cobra. This was a mark of his sharp and venomous tongue and his readiness to bite mining investors, especially the Chinese, with super taxes if not nationalisation for what he regarded as their crass exploitation of Zambian mineworkers and of Zambia as a whole.

But in office he became more mellow, essentially continuing the investor-friendly policies of his predecessors, interspersed with occasional fits of socialist rhetoric. Though he has kept mining houses in check by threatening to revoke their mining licences if they retrench workers, he has not carried out his election campaign threats of resource nationalisation.

Nevertheless, his perceived lack of delivery on his election promises of tougher action against mining investors is costing the PF support in the politically important Copperbelt, provoking fears that the party will have to make more promises – perhaps even to nationalise mines – in the 2016 election campaign.

Few Zambians seem to believe Sata will be strong enough to run again for office then. Whether he will even be strong enough to continue in office until then, is also now in doubt.

Peter Fabricius, Foreign Editor, Independent Newspapers, South Africa

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