Obituary: Michael Chilufya Sata, politician

Former London railway porter who became Zambia's president. Picture: Getty

Former London railway porter who became Zambia's president. Picture: Getty

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BORN: 6 July, 1937, in Mpika, Zambia. Died: 28 October, 2014, in London, aged 77.

Despite his achievements as Zambia’s head of state, Michael Chilufya Sata will probably be best remembered historically as the man whose death led to the first appointment of a white democratic president in a black majority African state.

Guy Scott, 70, whose father was born in Glasgow and his mother in London, was sworn in as interim president after Sata succumbed to a long illness, believed to be associated with prostate cancer, in a London hospital.

Scott, vice-president of the former central African British colony, will govern as president for at least 90 days before the ruling Patriotic Front party meets to decide a permanent successor.

Several black Zambians, including defence minister Edgar Lungu and Sata’s son, Mulenga Sata, governor of Lusaka, the Zambian capital, are clamouring for the top job. But in a country of more than 80 tribes, with no single one dominant, it is not inconceivable that Scott will emerge as the compromise appointee.

Few Zambians believe that the succession battle will turn violent. Their country has an enviable track record of stability in black Africa, suffering little of the political chaos and ethnic strife characteristic of its immediate neighbours – Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Angola.

Michael Sata became the fifth president of Zambia on 23 September, 2011 after three previous unsuccessful attempts, in 2001, 2006 and 2008, to become head of state in all-party elections. Sata’s campaign manager was his friend Guy Scott, the Patriotic Front’s secretary general.

Sata immediately appointed Scott, a hugely popular MP for a Lusaka constituency, who had served in the 1990s as a successful agriculture minister, as vice-president.

Sata came to power by defeating the incumbent Movement for Multi-Party Democracy’s leader Rupiah Banda, on a promise to protect workers from exploitation by Chinese firms and to share the country’s wealth more equitably between rich and poor.

He exploited skilfully the shooting dead of 13 miners in 2010 by Chinese managers at a coal mine in southern Zambia. The workers, protesting about a wage the equivalent of only £140 a month, responded by killing a Chinese supervisor.

Sata’s populist campaign also featured promises to tackle youth unemployment, end corruption and increase taxation on foreign mining companies.

Sata, opposition leader at the time, denounced the killing of the miners, by “merciless so-called investors”.

But when he became president, Sata quietly dropped murder charges against the Chinese mine managers, an implicit acknowledgement of the fact that Beijing’s investment of nearly $2 billion has helped maintain Zambia’s impressive 7 per cent growth rate in recent years. Before the 2006 election, Beijing had warned that it would cut diplomatic ties with Zambia if Sata won.

Sata was born in a remote rural area in what was then the British colony of Northern Rhodesia, and received little formal education. A devout Catholic married to a doctor, he briefly trained for the priesthood before becoming a police officer and then moving to London, where he worked as a railway porter at Victoria Station.

He returned home just before independence in 1964 and worked his way up through the rank-and-file of the ruling United Independence Party, led by Kenneth Kaunda, to the governorship of Lusaka in 1985. As governor, he made his mark as a man of action.

He cleaned up the rubbish-strewn streets, patched some of the pot-holed roads and built bridges in the city. Though once close to Kaunda, he became disillusioned by the crumbling of the economy as a result of irrational policies under Kaunda’s dictatorial one-party state rule.

He left the party to join the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) during the campaign for multi-party politics in 1991, which ended in defeat for Kaunda, who was succeeded by Frederick Chiluba.

Sata formed the Patriotic Front (PF) in 2001 after Chiluba chose the late Levy Mwanawasa as his presidential successor rather than Sata.

As governor of Lusaka and President of Zambia, Sata was nicknamed “King Cobra” because of his sharp tongue, his readiness to strike and his slipperiness.

Guy Scott, jocular, self-deprecating and irreverent, was often called upon to soothe the egos of Sata’s governing colleagues wounded by his abrasive style. Scott used to tease Sata by saying that if he was black he would have been president long ago.

Sata enigmatically praised neighbouring Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s policy of seizing white-owned farmland while at the same time welcoming expelled Zimbabwean white farmers to Zambia, giving them 99-year leases on vast fertile, well-watered land.

Next to copper mining, farming is the second pillar of the Zambian economy, but less than 20 per cent of arable land is cultivated.

“Mugabe hasn’t done anything wrong,” argued Sata. “It is the imperialists, the capitalist-roaders who say he is a villain. The people of Zimbabwe are not suffering. They are much happier.”

Guy Scott depicts Mugabe as a lover of the Queen and English cricket who would dearly love to be given the red and gold-striped blazer of the Marylebone Cricket Club.

“He [Mugabe] is an Anglophone,” says Scott. “He loves to give lectures on the English language, English weighing systems, English this or that.”

Sata, as President, introduced strict financial enforcement policies, including measures to curb tax evasion by Chinese and other foreign mining companies. He restored some of the country’s tattered infrastructure and increased spending on health and education.

Nevertheless, the World Bank said more than 40 percent of Zambia’s 13 million people lived in extreme poverty with incomes less than the equivalent of £1.30 a day.

Mr Sata is survived by his wife, Christine Kaseba-Sata, and eight children.

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