IT is often a staple of reporting on Africa by western media and ratings agencies that any election or passing of a president in the region is billed as a “test” of the country’s democratic credentials.
It is easy to see where they are coming from—far too often such transitions on the continent have degenerated into violent protests, and in some cases, outright internecine warfare.
The latest candidate for this tag is Zambia, whose president Michael Sata died on October 28 while in a London hospital, after months of battling illness and numerous claims and conspiracies that he had died even earlier.
In August, when he had not been seen in public for weeks, Mail & Guardian Africa travelled to the southern African country to call on the country’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda.
Curious over the swirling speculation over Sata’s health, we asked several ordinary Zambians how they felt about their near-future. The response was, as in many African countries, guarded, but more often than not took the form of a shrug of the shoulders and a “life-will-go-on” outlook.
Long CV of managing successions
Zambia is not your archetypal African country in one sense—it has successfully managed successions in high-stake elections that would have torn many other more homogenous countries apart.
Most already knew Sata was seriously ill, and Zambians have also seen a sitting president die in office before, when one of the country’s more popular leaders, Levy Mwanawasa, passed away in 2008.
So, for them, the impending transition does not breed political anxiety, or outright fear, and keen observers and investors would bet on the country managing this latest transition—the third in five years— just as peacefully.
But Zambia is again your textbook African nation in another sense: high intrigue. Africa just does not do straightforward.
There is already a sense of behind-the-scene positioning on who in the ruling party will succeed Sata. It was notable that when the secretary to the Cabinet Roland Msiska on Wednesday morning confirmed Sata’s death, he was at the time silent on who would be the acting president.
Vice president Guy Scott has under the constitution assumed office for 90 days until the country holds a special election.
The country’s main law currently holds that a president must be a citizen by birth or descent. Scott was born in Livingstone in then Northern Rhodesia in 1944. As such he meets the constitutional requirement of being born in Zambia, but then, if strictly interpreted, at least one of his parents would have to have been a citizen.
His father, Alex, a former British MP, emigrated there in the late 1920s, and his mother in 1940. It is not clear if his father, who met a 12-year residency requirement for registration, had taken up the option to be a citizen by the time of his son’s birth.
However, Zambian courts, some analysts argue, set a precedent in a 1998 case that had, ironically, challenged Frederick Chiluba’s eligibility on the same basis of his parentage.
Politics of parentage have a special place in the Zambian scetting: Chiluba also sought to lock out Kaunda on the same grounds, arguing that the first president’s parents were from Malawi.
In what was seen as a milestone for the country’s constitutional law, the court noted that anyone who was resident in Zambia at independence in 1964 acquired citizenship, making the status of his parents according to it legally moot.
Interestingly, the constitution also notes that the qualifications and disqualifications that apply to a president also apply to his deputy. This raises the question—if Scott is eligible to be vice president, why would he not be president?
Politics. Under the African sun, what you look like does matter. It was all well if Sata, a black man, had a deputy of European descent. It is another story if the white man is the main man, in a country that was one of the stalwarts against colonialism, however deep its respect for its multinational ethnic make up runs.
Kaunda was big on the unity the country had managed to knit it together despite having over 80 ethnic groups, but it would be fair to argue that not even he would have foreseen the current scenario. (Read: Africa can learn from Zambia’s unity’, says Kenneth Kaunda, and he has no regrets)
It will be interesting to see the developments in Scott’s three-month stint as acting president, at the end of which he would call an election to decide who will complete Sata’s term to 2016.
It would be a major if unlikely achievement if the outspoken Scott is on the ruling PF ticket, having told one reporter that it would be “bridge too far”. It is less polemical that his longer-term future is up in the air. Perhaps in recognition of the challenges of a run, he Tuesday indicated he would not vie, citing the constitution.
Another obstacle to his becoming the continent’s first White leader of a post-independence African country takes the shape of the country’s Defence minister, Edgar Lungu.
Lungu in the wings
Before he left for London, Sata pulled out a rabbit from his hat, appointing him as acting president. Lungu is also the acting secretary-general of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF) and also acting justice minister.
Zambia’s constitution requires the president, if he leaves Zambia or is ill, to authorise his deputy to perform executive functions (with the rider that these are what are specified by the president) until revoked.
Notably, Lungu also previously acted as head of state in Sata’s absence including at last week’s 50th independence anniversary, while Scott mainly stood in for Sata at major events, including at the US-Africa summit in August.
Lungu recently had to deny his presidential ambitions when some zealous party members set up a social media campaign calling for him to succeed Sata. He at the time pledged total support for Sata, and the pages were subsequently taken down.
Another formidable rival for the ruling party would be former president Rupiah Banda, like Sata also 77, and who recently hinted at a bid for power, cryptically saying he had “heard those calls” urging him to re-enter politics.
Banda lost 2011 elections to Sata but would be a strong rival to the PF candidate.
“Up to now I have not reacted, I am just listening. I am legally eligible to stand but I have not reacted,” Banda told news agency AFP on October 9. He said that enacting a new constitution would be a priority.
Sata had promised to pass a new constitution in 90 days once elected, a document that would have significantly clipped his own powers. This is yet to happen.
But for Zambia, the current focus shifts to succession, and in keeping with the nature of the country’s politics, it promises to be combative, if entertaining.