When I first started following Zambian politics, Michael Sata – who died on October 28 in London – was already a seasoned political operator, having served in senior government positions since Kenneth Kaunda’s one party state in the 1980s.
By 2009 he had become the chief thorn in the side of the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). For years, Sata and his allies in the press and civil society had been mounting an offensive so effective that it eventually won him the 2011 election.
One might argue that toppling a government that has been in power for two decades is not currency for bragging rights. Surely, after 20 years the public would be fed up of the same old faces and policies by then and would gladly vote for an alterative?
True, this is how it happens in established democracies but in most emerging democracies the electoral playing field is often heavily skewed in favour of the party in power who blatantly use state machinery and resources to blanket the airwaves and buy votes.
So Sata’s achievement in 2011 should not be underestimated.
A product of the system himself, Sata was wise to the tricks employed by the government during election time. Fully aware that the MMD would try to bribe voters with sacks of grain and handouts, he urged his supporters to take the gifts but to still vote for his party, the Patriotic Front (PF). ‘Donchi Kubeba’ (or ‘Don’t tell them’) became the viral slogan and musical accompaniment to Sata’s election as president in 2011.
He ran an energetic campaign of undisguised populism that tapped into the frustration and hopes of millions of (mostly young) Zambians who had no jobs, money or opportunities.
Sata spoke at length and in revolutionary prose about how he would create millions of jobs, raise the minimum wage, increase Zambia’s share of mining revenue; all the while putting manners on Chinese and other foreign investors.
In his first year and a half in office Sata achieved some progress. He kept his promise of raising the minimum wage and he did bully some foreign mining bosses into reversing plans for reducing employee numbers.
Overall however he achieved little economic success even though he presided over three years of healthy economic growth. Despite government claims to the contrary, few new jobs seem to have been created and young Zambians that had voted for Sata started to become quickly disillusioned at his many unfulfilled promises.
Perhaps most disappointing however were Sata’s several u-turns on key governance reforms coupled with a ruthless approach to silencing his critics in the media and civil society. In truth, these attacks should have come as no surprise given Sata’s track record within the PF – which was created solely for his advancement. The PF never held a single democratic election for party leadership.
Despite his disappointing three years in power, Sata may be best remembered for his fiery and at times outlandish public speaking. This earned him many admirers and the moniker ‘King Cobra’ in honour of his venomous attacks on opponents.
But Sata was also quite quirky and humourous.
For instance, he had an aversion to bald heads he repeatedly made fun of important people who chose to shave their heads. Even Jacob Zuma didn’t escape ridicule as reported in January this year by journalist Idriss Ali Nassah who was covering events at an African Union Summit:
‘“Michael Sata just had to do this: Walks up to Jacob Zuma, playfully slaps him on the head and asks, “Why do you shave like that,” Nassah reported.’
Sata had earlier made the claim in a Labour Day speech that men who shaved their heads were harming the Zambian economy because poor women looking to sell combs in a Lusaka market would be put out of business.
Jokes and catchy slogans cannot mask a failed presidency however. Which is what Sata’s was. His presidency will need to be analysed frankly by his successor if improvements are to be made.
For now, Zambia is mourning a man who will always be remembered in Zambian political folklore for his political nous and popular appeal. He also saw the country through its first peaceful transition of political power to the opposition since the coming of multiparty politics.
Lets hope that feat can be repeated now.