Uncertainty over Michael Sata’s health in Zambia

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In this blog our co-editor, Nic Cheeseman, explores rumours that Sata’s health is failing and the dilemmas the President faces as a result. This piece was initially published on the blog Presidential Power.

As yet unconfirmed reports suggest that at some point around Tuesday 27 May the Zambian President, Michael Sata, collapsed and was immediately flown for emergency treatment in South Africa. At present, the story is being denied by the official presidential spokesman, George Chellah, but it is consistent with reports that the president’s mental and physical health has deteriorated significant in recent months.

Sadly, Zambians are well used to speculation and controversy around the health of the president. The final days of President Levy Mwanawasa were marked by a public debate over his illness, in which opposition parties alleged that he was incapacitated and possibly already dead, while government figures claimed that the president was in fact conscious and in control. Mwanawasa’s untimely death on 19 August 2008 suggests that the opposition was closer to the mark, but the whole episode left a bad taste in the mouth of many Zambians.

One reason that the status of the president is so eagerly watched and ruling parties are so keen to deny clear evidence of the ailments of their leaders is that the Zambian constitution contains an unusual clause that requires a presidential by-election to be held within 90 days of the official declaration of death or incapacity. In the case of Levy Mwanawasa, his Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) party struggled to come to a consensus over his replacement, which created significant challenges for his successor, Rupiah Banda. Although Banda narrowly won the presidential by-election, the MMD lost ground to its main rivals, and was ultimately defeated by Sata and the Patriotic Front (PF) in the 2011 general elections.

There are good reasons for thinking that an unregulated succession battle would cause similar problems for the PF. The internal battle to replace Sata has already begun, and it has become clear that there is no consensus within the party on who should lead it into the next election if Sata is unable to run. In part, this is because there is no ideological cohesion within the PF – it is essentially a collection of individuals who defected from other parties in the hope that Sata’s powerful leadership. Most of the governments MPs are united by little more than their ambition. In the event of a succession contest, this ambition could prove to be divisive as rival leaders battle for top position.

The uncertainty surrounding the president thus has far-reaching political and economic implications. Evidence of President Sata’s ill-health comes from a number of different sources. In addition to rumours that he had to be brought back to life after collapsing at his residence, his day-to-day behaviour appears to have become more erratic than usual. Known for his “man of action” leadership style, Sata has always been an idiosyncratic and unpredictable politician.

But his recent appearance at a court case in which he is suing the Daily Nation, a privately owned Zambian newspaper, surprised even long-term Zambia watchers. The president is demanding K 500,000 in damages for an article published in on 16 May 2012 which alleged that he ordered the Development Bank of Zambia (DBZ), a government parastatal, to terminate the contract of its lawyers, Vincent Malambo and Company, in order to prevent the DBZ from suing some of his closest allies: Mutembo Nchito and Fred M’membe.

The DBZ had started the action in order to recoup K 14 million that Nchito and M’membe borrowed when they were directors of the now defunct Zambia Airways. Although the High Court sided with the DBZ, the Supreme Court subsequently ordered a re-trial, and the DBZ subsequently fired Malambo and Company, sparking accusations that the president had deliberately lobbied to have the case postponed and the lawyers dropped.

The case provides a fascinating insight into the way that the PF political elite protect and promote their own. Neither M’membe nor Nchito have been punished for their profligacy or the embarrassing fallout from the court cases. Instead, Nchito has been promoted to Director of Public Prosecution, while M’membe remains the editor of The Post Newspaper.

Indeed, rather than allow the incident to fade into the background, Sata has aggressively pursued those who have sought to expose the corruption at the hart of government. Even so, few people expected him to walk into the courtroom on 21 May to press his complaint against the Daily Nation – the newspaper that initially ran the story – in person. In a statement to the Court, the president alleged that the defendants were liars and had made up their story in order to persecute him. Critics of the president have already pointed out that he failed to answer a question about his age correctly. Some have suggested that this is because he wishes to trick Zambians into thinking that he is younger than he is, in case the new constitution – currently being debated – imposes an age-limit of 75 on presidential candidates (Sata is 76). But others have claimed that it is evidence of his growing senility.

However, the president’s surprise appearance may prove to have been a major miscalculation, because he has opened himself up to a cross-examination which defense lawyers have threatened to use to challenge the president’s physical and mental health in order to discredit him as a witness. Sata now finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place.  On the one hand, if he appears before the Court, he will be forced to answer embarrassing questions about his health. On other hand, if he fails to show many will interpret it as evidence that the rumours are true and that he had to be flown to South Africa for emergency treatment. Recent reports in the Zambian blogosphere suggest that the Office of the President is well aware of the challenges that the president’s appearance has generated, and is now trying to settle matters out of court.



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