Memories of Michael Sata

In the international news this week is the announcement that the President of the Republic of Zambia, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital. The veteran politician, aged 77 when he died, was known as ‘King Cobra’ for his willingness to strike out at opponents.  His determination to succeed finally saw him win an outright election in 2011 and achieve his life’s ambition of becoming President of his country.

I first met Michael Sata in 2004 in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. At that time I had an office in Farmer’s House on Cairo Road (grandly named by the British former colonists to be part of Cecil Rhodes’ Cape to Cairo highway) for my publishing and advertising businesses, Concept Marketing Limited.  The office opposite me across the hall was Michael Sata’s base for his opposition political party The Patriotic Front (PF).  At that time he looked doomed to be in opposition forever, as opposition parties rarely win an election in Africa against a firmly entrenched ruling party.

We were both smokers, and would stand outside the building chatting about this and that over a fag. He was inquisitive and wanted to know about my business.  I did not know it at the time, but I was employing his nephew as a Graphic Designer.  One morning he burst into my office without a knock and asked to use my fax machine.  It was his way.  Not a request that you could decline, more of an order.  I told him what I would charge for a local and international call and he brushed me aside with a wave of the hand, saying he would send his Accountant over later to pay.  The fax was sent and the Accountant duly paid.

On another occasion I was queuing in the bank and he swept in, walking straight to the window and demanding he be attended to straight away by the startled young female Teller. There was a murmur of discontent from the long Friday lunchtime queue, and to her credit, the young lady refused to serve him and told him to join the back of the line.  A spontaneous round of applause broke out from the queue and words were spoken in Nyanja.  Sata left in a huff, unused to not getting his own way.

He had a well earned reputation for being someone who Got Things Done, and was respected for it. He had served as a Minister under first President Kenneth Kaunda and second President Frederick Chiluba, before forming his own political party and going into opposition.  His successful election campaign in 2010/11 was based on political opportunism and, ultimately, false promises.  Jobs for the disaffected youth, economic recovery and the expulsion of the hated Chinese.

It was rumoured at the time that his election campaign was funded by the Taiwanese, based on the promise that once elected, they could replace the Chinese as Zambia’s new friend. A shrewd move by Sata was to appoint Guy Scott, born in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) to British parents, as his vice presidential running mate.  He had been a farmer in Zambia and involved in politics since the early days of the MMD, and was acceptable to both Zambians and the international community.  All was set for a high energy, high impact and emotional election campaign.

His election victory on 23rd September 2011 was indeed historic, sweeping past the struggling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), whose twenty year reign was staggering to a halt under unpopular President Rupiah Banda, despite a reasonably good set of economic figures.  Perhaps a warning to the ANC in South Africa?  The MMD was hurriedly set up in 1991, with US and British support, as a vehicle to topple the creaking Kaunda administration, and restore Western economic interests back into the country.

Fast forward twenty years and the Chinese have become the bed fellows of many African States, offering infrastructure development in exchange for minerals. They wanted a slice of Zambia’s copper and cobalt output, and their preferred approach is to side-step Western free market economy rules and head straight for State House for behind closed doors negotiations.  In Zambia’s case, the Mines and Minerals Act was amended in 2005 to force mining license holders to return a proportion of their land to Government.  These reclaimed mining concessions were duly handed over to the Chinese.  African Leaders love the personal attention and the feeling of being important the Chinese bring to negotiations, oh, and their personal wealth tends to increase as a result.  The West are left feeling uncomfortable and rejected, like a jilted bride at the altar.

Sata’s manifesto was therefore greeted with a mixed reception by the business community and internationally. To throw out the Chinese would please the West, but carried with it the possibility of further draconian measures including more expulsions of foreigners or the return of the dreaded Nationalisation.  Poor Zambians were hopeful of a better life, and turned out in large numbers to vote in the PF and Michael Sata on a wave of nationalism.  In my office in 2009, I had caught his nephew designing a PF newspaper advert and admonished him for doing a private job on company time.  Perhaps it was just as well that I wound up my business and left Zambia in 2009 to return to the UK, and watch political events unfold from afar!

There was ultimately a sense of anti-climax after Michael Sata’s ascendancy to the Presidency. He was an aging man in declining health, and had just achieved his life’s ambition.  As with many in his situation, he was forced to accept compromise to keep various interest groups happy.  The Chinese were the first to make their way to State House, and shortly after their presentation to the new President, all was rosy in the garden and their friendship with Zambia was re-affirmed.  Business as usual, and the youths hopeful of employment were left with the harsh reality of taking low paid jobs for Chinese and other foreign investors on the minimum wage of less than two US dollars a day.

Michael Sata’s story is one of endurance and determination. His road was long and hard, perhaps mirroring the post-colonial experience of many Africans.  But he proved that it is possible to succeed, and that under the scrutiny of the international community, it is less easy for ruling parties to fix the election to stay in power…..well, at least in some countries.  Congratulations to Zambia on recently celebrating their 50th year of Independence.  I remember my time in Zambia with warm and deep affection for the country and its people.  I wish them happiness and success as they tread the thorny road between self determination and the pressures from the international community, both East and West.

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