Bitter succession battle looms in Zambia

Posted on November 8, 2014


On his deathbed in a London hospital a couple of weeks ago, the President of Zambia, Michael Chilufya Sata, dictated a note in which he named his preferred successor. In doing so, he has crated still further turmoil in that country as the battle for succession hots up.

Th man he nominated is Given Lubinda, a former minister in his government, but who is currently relegated to the backbenches of parliament following a run-in with senior party officials. When approached about Sata apparently favouring him to take over the presidentcy, Lubinda said he had heard of the development, but would not comment further.

The meeting in London was attended by Sata’s wife, Dr Christine Kaseba, a son from a previous marriage, Mulenga Sata, now mayor of, the Zambian capital, Lusaka, an official from the British foreign office, and the president’s security and medical staff.

Since Sata’s death on October 28, the ruling party, the Patriotic Front (PF), has been torn apart by divisions tha thave long simmerd beneath the surface. This has also caused widespread uncertainty throughout the country.

Officially, there has been no mention of a preferred successor. The Zambian constitution provides for a period of 90 days during which the vice president, Dr Guy Scott, must act as president while preparing the country for the election of a new president.

But there are 16 known potential contenders for the presidency. Scott himself is disqualified from standing since his parents were not born in Zambia, which is a constitutional requirement.

There are also an ethnic and dimension involved. Scott is of European parentage.and there are many people in Zambia who, while appreciating the hard work he did in helping bring the PF to power after 14 years of trying, are bemused by the idea of a “white man” as head of state, even as an acting head of state. However, his appointment by Sata as vice president was widely welcomed.

Lubinda is a Lozi by tribe, and if he is to succeed Sata he will need to reach some accommodation with the powerful Bemba grouping who have traditionally been the kingmakers in Zambia.

Sata and Lubinda have been close over the years but few would have guessed that Lubinda, who has kept a low profile after being mauled by officials within his own party, would be chosen for the top job — a decision that must now be tested in an election.

A further oddity in the list of contenders is that Sata’s widow, Christine Kaseba, has been named as a possible contender, as has her stepson, Mulenga Sata. The bizarre implications of a possible electoral fight between stepmother and stepson will merely add to the very strange current circumstances of the political order in Zambia.

President Sata has been obviously unwell for many months, but there was never any admission from anyone in authority that he was seriously ill. Denials of his ill health, and outright lies, flowed from government officers, despite the fact that the stricken president was being flown around the world from one medical institution to another. He was said to be on “a working holiday”, or “talking to potential investors” When anyone in media attempted to open a discussion on the President’s health, they were threatened with closure.

Naturally there was endless public speculation — made very quietly behind closed doors — about what was ailing the president. Guesses ranged from prostate trouble, to cancers of various sorts, to neurological problems and so on. Very few people would have known the truth, and they weren’t saying as the ailing president crisscrossed the world in a variety of aircraft, seeking a medical solution to his declining health. The country still does not know what killed Sata.

As word of Sata’s endorsement of Lubinda spreads it is difficult to see how he will be accepted by many of those clamouring to be successors. A wide-open and bitter contest seems on the cards.

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