Ailing Zambian President Michael Sata’s health, possible retirement or death, and the ruling Patriotic Front’s (PF) denialist intransigence on both this and a potential successor, have been clouding the political and economic landscape in Zambia for some months. Rumours that Sata’s condition is deteriorating have been intensifying since his June 2014 visit abroad, reportedly for medical treatment in Israel. Having long last appeared in public, anticipation was high ahead of his appearance in Parliament on 19 September 2014, but Sata was unable to project even the charade of good health and his wife had to help him walk after he collapsed on the steps of the office of the Speaker of the National Assembly. He then cut short his address, replete with inappropriate jokes and irrelevant incoherent commentary, after running out of breath and interjections from his wife and assistants. Just over a week later, he left New York having been unable to deliver his scheduled speech to the United Nations (UN) on 24 September.
Most recently the Zambian Watchdog noted unconfirmed reports that Sata was evacuated on 4 October to an unknown destination for medical treatment to make him appear fit for the 50th Independence celebrations in about three weeks’ time. Local civils society groups such as the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) says discussions of Sata’s health should not be shrouded in secrecy and controversy, while the Media Institute for Southern Africa (MISA) Zambia has vowed to continue providing a platform for the matter as it had the potential to affect the country’s economy.
The succession debate within the ruling party has yet to reveal a clear frontrunner. In August Sata sacked his Justice Minister Wynter Kabimba, who was seen as a potential successor having lobbied extensively within the PF Central Committee over the last three years and with a rumoured succession pact with Sata long the source of speculation. However, outside this group he had little support and was ethnically something of a wild card. His effective removal from the list leaves Sata’s son and Lusaka District Chairperson Mulenga Sata, looking a more likely candidate, especially after his vehement objection to Vice-President Guy Scott’s insinuation that Mulenga’s parentage disqualified him from the presidency as it does Scott. With media reports contending that Mulenga is “making an ambitious run at the presidency to become the chosen PF successor” there are rumours that Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda, who is also Sata’s uncle and another potential successor, is paying for Mulenga’s presidential campaign. With the succession pact with Kabimba apparently off the table with his dismissal, Mulenga’s ascendancy looks increasingly likely, but a host of other names remain on the list.
These include Edgar Lungu, Defence Minister and widely seen as an ineffectual drunkard; Chisimba Kambwili (Minister of Youth and Sport), Emmanuel Chenda (Minister of Commerce, trade & Industry) and Fackson Shamenda (Labour Minister). There is little weight to these suggestions but Kabwili is mentioned as a favourite in terms of public support. A name that crops up more regularly is Miles Sampa, the President’s nephew and member of the PF Central Committee, and, at 43, among a newer generation of Zambian politicians that includes Obius Chabu Chisala, Wlybur Simuusa, Dr Joseph Katema, Yamfwa Mukanga, Joel Bweupe Ng’onga, and Nathaniel Mubukwanu.
If the president dies in office, there would be elections within 90 days. For now, however, bets are wide open and the attendant uncertainty is doing little to settle shaky investor confidence in Zambia as Sata’s blood pressure sustains a direct impact on national political and economic health.