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Is Zambia’s President Sata Working Quietly Behind the Scenes or Seriously Ill?

President Michael Sata in a picture of a TV screenshot of one of his last public appearances. Picture used with permission of Zambian Watchdog.

President Michael Sata in a picture of a TV screenshot of one of his latest public appearances. Picture used with permission of Zambian Watchdog.

He missed what could be billed as the most important diplomatic event involving African leaders in 2014: the US-Africa summit for which President Obama hosted over 40 African heads of state. He also missed an equally important 15-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) summit held in Zimbabwe’s Victoria Falls town on the border with Zambia.

On the local scene, Zambia’s President Michael Sata skipped what has become a political tradition—a sitting president joining the rank and file members of his party to campaign for its candidate in a by-election. This was the recently held by-election in Mangango Constituency of Western Province, which his ruling Patriotic Front (PF) won.

At issue has been the veteran politician’s health, which online media such as the Zambian Watchdog has speculated about for a while, referring to Sata, Zambia’s president since September 2011, as an ailing president for some erratic behaviour he has exhibited from time to time. Government machinery has, however, not acknowledged Sata’s poor health status.

All eyes are now on the next big national political event: the official opening of the next session of parliament, which is due sometime in September. The nation is yet to see if he will, as per tradition, be the one to open the august house with the grueling ceremony that goes with it.

Sata was last seen in public in mid-May when he hosted Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao and appeared haggard with other appearances or faked appearances going horribly wrong.

The worst public relations disaster was when he swore in the attorney general with muted TV footage by which time the nation confirmed their suspicions—that the Man of Action, fondly called, was not himself.

It later became clear why the TV footage of the swearing-in ceremony was muted. The president usually makes policy statements during swearing-in ceremonies. The state house used a picture of the previous swearing in of the Attorney General in another position to “prove” his public appearance hence the muted swearing in.

Sometime in June, Sata was evacuated to Israel where his senior government officials told the nation that he was going for a working holiday and he would meet Israeli President Shimon Perez, until a newspaper there confirmed that he was admitted to a hospital.

There are, however, increasing calls for the Zambian Cabinet to invoke Article 36 of the Constitution to constitute a medical board to ascertain Sata’s suitability to continue as head of state. Reminding Cabinet of its duties, politician and writer Alfred A K Ndhlovu (no relation to author), wrote:

We are a democracy and laws are used to govern the country. President Sata should not be treated as a sick chief pending death. In our democracy, a president must be as fit as a fiddle to govern the country. When president Sata appeared in public on Labour Day, he looked visibly emaciated and weak! Former presidents Kaunda and Banda who were present looked healthier and fit. Why should president Stata’s colleagues pretend that president Sata is fine, well and working. You may hide illness but death will certainly be known. How will they explain that eventuality!

This author, writing on the Zambia News Features website earlier, and quoting Article 36, stated:

Without wishing President Sata any ill-will, the concern of every Zambian is that if the man is physically or mentally incapable of discharging duties of a head of state, it is important that the nation gets told about it. But, most importantly, the constitution under Article 36 set the necessary guidelines under the circumstances.

Political analyst Brian Chisengalumbwe, in a write up published on Lusaka Times, suggested that Cabinet was acting illegally without the effective supervision of the president, stating:

The Ministers are therefore in BREACH of the ZAMBIAN CONSTITUTION; it is illegal for Cabinet- Cabinet Ministers and Vice President- to be running the affairs of the country outside the effective control of the President. Cabinet is the President, without the President there is no Cabinet; he is the only official elected and authorized by the People of Zambia to preside over the affairs of Government. He selects Cabinet Ministers to assist him execute these functions. If he is unable to discharge Presidential functions, the Ministers cannot continue performing Ministerial and Government functions; the constitution COMPELS cabinet to constitute a medical board.

An opposition leader, Nason Msoni, took on First Lady Christine Kaseba who, on a recent visit to a rural part of Zambia, said her husband was working quietly and moving the nation forward:

Dr. Kaseba should stop plainly playing with the minds of Zambians. We deserve better than this; what is she trying to subject us to? If she continues issuing such statements we shall not make distinction between herself and her husband, we shall unleash ourselves on her because government has collapsed due to the non performance of the government and the ultimate victims are the poor Zambians who are feeling the brunt of the non performance of government [...] These are not matters to play with and we take great exception to her statement and we advise the madam to stick to what she is competent in.

The question to ask is whether President Sata will continue in office for the remaining two years of his tenure, considering that he has turned into a recluse from the publicity-loving extrovert he has been all through his political career.

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