By Hicks Sikazwe
Just four days after Zambia, Africa’s largest copper producer celebrated 50 years of independence from Britain, its president, Michael Chilufya Sata died at King Edward VII hospital in London, becoming the second country’s head of state to die in office within six years.
Locally known as king cobra, the 77-year-old had been ailing even when he assumed power in September 2011, though officials publicly swore the president was in good health.
He broke away from MMD forming the Patriotic Front (PF) and remained in opposition for ten years but like Rupiah Banda, the man he dethroned in a closely contested election, he ruled for only three years.
Though his sickness was shrouded in a veil of secrecy, his physical features betrayed the official denials as the once robust Sata began transforming rapidly and dangerously to a point that by the time he died on October 28, media reports suggested that he had lost his voice.
By dying a few days after Independence day, Sata did not only miss the golden jubilee fanfare, but he left behind succession controversies plunging the nation in a dilemma as to which direction the country’s mining policies would head.
Born in 1937, Sata entered politics under the United National Independence Party (UNIP) contesting and winning ward elections in Bauleni a sprawling poverty-ridden shanty township in the eastern part of the capital, Lusaka.
UNIP led by first republican president Kenneth Kaunda, was the only party from 1972, when the man fondly referred to as KK declared Zambia a one party state by proscribing opposition political parties effectively scrapping multi-party politics.
Sata was an adherent of Kaunda’s and in return, he rose to the position of governor of Lusaka and later minister of state for local government.
As Kaunda’s disciple, Sata also supported UNIP socialist policies which included nationalisation of the mining sector. And by the return of multi-party dispensation that fostered capitalism and its belief in the free market, the copper export economy had collapsed discharging a trail of shortages of basic items from bathing soap to maize meal, the country’s staple food.
In 1991, when Kaunda bowed down to pressure, repealing article 4 of the constitution that allowed more parties to join the political arena, Sata was among UNIP leaders who abandoned Kaunda and jumped on the bandwagon to join a surge for political change.
He anchored leaders of the new pressure group, the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) in denouncing Kaunda and the same policies he ( Sata) supported while in UNIP.
When MMD later tranformed into a political party, Sata contested as member of parliament for Kabwata constituency in Lusaka, winning with a landslide and was appointed in the first MMD cabinet, later to serve as national secretary, minister without portifolio, minister for local government and minister of health.
Man of action
Under UNIP and MMD he was known as a man of action. Indeed there were a myriad of actions some of which either he made a mark or simply embarrassed his bosses. For example, as Lusaka governor he launched an aggressive debt collection campaign in which even government departments that owed the Lusaka city council for nonpayment for provision of services, had their water supply disconnected.
Some of the state institutions that lost water supply included hospitals police stations and army barracks. Often it took someone higher, a minister or the president himself to reverse such a radical decision. But positively the coffers of the local authority would have been boosted.
At another time as governor again, after receiving reports of poor cash collections from public buses run by the council, Sata began ambushing the vehicles jumping on them from unsuspecting points and immediately conducting audits to check how much ticket clerks had realised.
That was not the end. As local government minister he ordered the razing to the ground of houses in Chawama, another sprawling shanty township just a few metres from the city centre, leaving thousands of hapless families including women and children without shelter. It took his boss late President Frederick Chiluba rushing to the township to stop the marauding bull dozers.
In fact, under him, there have been more demolitions of so-called illegal structures mostly occupied houses than the breaking of homes in all governments since independence put together.
Sometimes, his actions were heart-rending and completely misplaced. As president while on a tour in Livingstone, Zambia’s tourist capital, he hived himself off the official entourage, leapt on a minibus, a public service vehicle to join a ride with the people, a move which caught his security crew off guard.
In other cases, his actions erupted in public scandals. For instance, in an attempt to improve housing in Chilenje Township he was embroiled in a construction saga of what has come to be known in Lusaka as Merzaf houses.
Later he locked horns with Levy Mwanawasa as acting president under the Chiluba regime, over administration of funds released to the ministry of health where he was minister. The above incident led to Mwanawasa resigning as republican vice -president.
His differences with Mwanawasa heightened when Chiluba handpicked Mwanawasa to be adopted for the 2001 general elections. Sata could no longer hold, he broke away to form PF. (Sata and Mwanawasa later reconciled).
For ten years, he provided formidable opposition until 2011 when he beat Rupiah Banda for state house.
Much as he provided checks and balances in the opposition, sometimes he made unsubstantiated charges, either against individuals or organisations. But perhaps what worried most people in Zambia after he became captain of the ship was whether he would attract foreign investment into this land locked country.
While in opposition he attacked Chinese investors, especially on the Copperbelt where some of them had bought off mining companies, calling them “infestors”. He criticised the sale of the telecommunication operator, Zamtel to Lap Green of Libya. He promised that once in power, he would renationalise the firm.
And indeed within weeks of being elected, he grabbed back Zamtel from Lap Green and kicked out the buyers. He went further to repossess a private bank, Finance Bank, which had been sold off under Rupiah Banda and handed back to original owner.
But it was the reaction against the Chinese that surprised Zambians. He hosted the first luncheon (as president) for Chinese investors in Zambia and officials from the Chinese embassy in his first week in power. Miners on the Copperbelt working in Chinese-run mines were disappointed by the turn of events as their campaign hero shattered their hopes of improved conditions of services and good salaries promised during the campaign.
However, as he entrenched himself, he announced the suspension of foreign auctioning of emeralds and ordered that all precious stones mined in Zambia be sold in the country to boost revenues. He further ushered in mineral tax changes amid protests among most mine owners.
He scrapped subsidies on fuel and maize insisting that the cash saved from there would be ploughed into refurbishing collapsed infrastructure.
As a reward to voters, he moved swiftly to improve major roads in mine townships and non-mine residential areas throughout the country in a broad-based national wide road rehabilitation programme.
He also created Zambia’s tenth province, Muchinga, along with new districts in selected parts of the country. Though at 50 the country is ripe for more investment, it would have been interesting to see the fate of the mining industry in Zambia if Sata had lived to get the second term.
Otherwise by the time this article was being written thousands of people had converged at Lusaka’s Embassy Park to see the body being lowered into the grave. As the burial began even his critics were in a dilemma on whether or not they would continue to hate him as Zambia was putting to rest an astute politician, an orator and a man of the people.