On Friday 24th of October, Zambia celebrated fifty years of independence from the British. This was a significant moment and it was rightly celebrated in style.
Commemorations were organised across the country, including a gala event and fireworks display at Lusaka’s Heroes Stadium that was attended by government leaders, former heads of state from the region and diplomats.
Something wasn’t quite right though.
The man that descended onto the playing field that night at Heroes Stadium to hoist the Zambian flag for the fiftieth time since independence was certainly a dignified figure – tall, statesmanlike and clad in traditional attire. But Edgar Lungu wasn’t the man that Zambians elected as their president during the last elections in 2014.
That man – Michael Chilufya Sata (77) – was nowhere to be seen on the most important night in Zambia for fifty years.
Why? Well, according to Guy Scott, the Vice President, Sata was ‘out of the country for a medical checkup.’
One might be inclined for forgive the government for the unfortunate need to schedule a presidential ‘checkup’ during the 50th birthday of the country. But that would be to forget the endless stream of hogwash that has flowed from State House about the President’s health over the past six months.
As Sata’s physical condition has visibly deteriorated, his handlers and senior government ministers have consistently claimed that he is in good health, that he is hard at work leading Zambia’s development from the backroom and that those asking sensible questions about the wellbeing of the country’s leader are nothing more than insensitive scoundrels.
Alas, Sata’s poor health is becoming almost impossible to cover up. At the UN General Assembly in New York last month, Sata had to cancel is address and was reportedly given emergency treatment in his hotel room by doctors from the US Department of State.
This time around, he has flown to London for the latest round of treatment, reportedly checking in to the prestigious Harley Street Clinic. Multiple sources indicate that Sata has cancer and needs regular and intensive treatment to stave off further decline.
Sata’s absence from public life in the past few months has been glaringly obvious for a politician who is nicknamed the ‘King Cobra’ because of his famously poisonous rhetoric and penchant for rousing and lengthy public speeches.
Given Zambia’s recent experience – former President Mwanawasa died in office in 2008 precipitating snap elections and ultimately leading to the downfall of the MMD in the subsequent elections in 2011 – one might imagine that the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) would be well advised to take pre-emptive action to manage what seems like an inevitable succession.
The problem however, is that when Sata created the PF, he didn’t create a party with strong internal institutions and democratic processes. Instead, he built a vehicle to further his own political ambitions. That strategy had proven successful until recently but now that others in the PF need to unite the party around a successor they find consensus building almost impossible as factional fighting threatens to rip them apart.
The PF could learn a thing or two from its own past, also from the experiences of countries that have tried to hang on to ailing leaders for too long. Some say that if Sata can summon the strength, perhaps he could step in to guide the succession and ensure some stability during a transition.
But his only decisive action of late was to fire his one time confidante, former justice minister, Wynter Kabimba. That has strengthened finance minister Alexander Chikwanda’s hand and potentially that of the mayor of Lusaka, Mulenga Sata, Michael’s son.
Following Kabimba’s departure from the party and government, others have seen the opportunity for advancement. Consequently, the period between now and the next elections is likely to be marked by growing disunity within the PF.
Regardless of Sata’s strength as a leader in the past, it is unlikely that in his weakened state he will be able to do much to heal these rifts and guide the PF to victory in the next election.
These are not happy thoughts with which to celebrate half a century as an independent country. If nothing else, Zambia’s citizens surely deserve better.
At the very least they deserve honesty from the government about the health of a president that has two more years on his term of office.