Zambians pay respects to Sata President Sata’s body arrives at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka on Saturday
President Sata’s body arrives at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka on Saturday

President Sata’s body arrives at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport in Lusaka on Saturday

Lusaka – Zambians formed long lines yesterday to pay last respects to their late president, Michael Sata, who died in London last week aged 77 while undergoing treatment for an undisclosed illness.

Sata’s body, which was repatriated on Saturday, is to lie in state for a week in the capital Lusaka until a funeral in a graveyard reserved for heads of state on November 11.

Sata’s widow Christine, along with other family members and officials, were among the first to view his body in the Mulungushi International Conference Centre. The doors were then opened to the public.

Vice-President Guy Scott has taken over as acting president until an election is held within 90 days. Scott – born of Scottish parents and Africa’s first white leader since South Africa’s apartheid era – cannot run because Zambia’s constitution bars candidates of direct foreign lineage.

Sata, a former trade union leader nicknamed “King Cobra” for his acerbic broadsides, had denied persistent rumours in the last few months of his reign that he was gravely ill.

His detractors portrayed him as an authoritarian populist, while his admirers – many ordinary Zambians among them – remember him as a dynamic figure with the country’s best interests at heart.

“Our president was a selfless man who wanted the best for this country, he sacrificed a lot for this country,” one grieving citizen, Mary Tembo, said after viewing Sata’s casket.

Jean Ndayisenga, a Rwandan refugee living in Zambia for 17 years, said Sata would be remembered for giving refugees permanent resident permits. He said no previous Zambian presidents had ever given refugees such status.

For sure we are going to miss the president. We only hope the one who will take over will follow his steps,” he said.

Meanwhile, Scott is facing questions about his suitability even to act as interim leader by those who say he is barred from high office because his parents were not born in Zambia.

Cambridge-educated Scott, who was reported to have rung military chiefs after Sata’s death to ask for their support, says he has the backing of the Attorney General as well as cabinet.

Despite being the first democratic white leader in mainland Africa, he has dismissed the interest in his colour, telling local journalists: “I may be white on the outside, but my blood is black.”

In a reflection of the tensions in the former British protectorate, security has been stepped up around the acting president and military snipers have been stationed on the roof of the public broadcaster, ostensibly to ward off a coup.

Scott was chosen by Zambia’s cabinet to take over as acting president from Edgar Lungu, the Defence Minister, after Mr Sata died.

Lungu said that he reluctantly agreed to hand over the reins of power to avoid bloodshed. But he added that just as the constitution stipulated that the vice-president should take charge if the president died, it also said that the parents of the Zambian president should be born in the country.

“I love this country so much, just like President Sata did, that I wouldn’t risk the peace that we enjoy,” he said. “If power is in the wrong hands, so be it — it’s only 90 days after all.

“I chose the interests of the Zambian people — their safety and peace and good order. I gave it away.

“We only have one unified commander — that’s the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Suppose I had my own power centre and the forces put their weight behind me and the other guy didn’t have it, what would have happened? Blood.”

Another senior official from Sata and Scott’s Patriotic Front party, who did not wish to be named, said: “Scott doesn’t really have the support of the party to be acting president. The vice-president has never acted as president before because he is not eligible.”

Meanwhile as the plane carrying Sata’s body touched down on Zambian soil and his coffin was paraded along the red carpet towards his waiting convoy, hundreds of members of the Patriotic Front’s youth wing chanted slogans calling for the late president’s son Mulenga to take over.

Mulenga Sata, the current mayor of Lusaka said he was “ready” to lead, adding: “You’ve heard my name being suggested left and right. Why not? I was mentored in the School of Sata.”

The 47-year-old former engineer said it was not his father’s “wish” that Scott step into his shoes, since he picked Lungu to be acting president.

“What we want is that he oversees the process in a smooth and transparent manner,” he said. “I don’t envy him the task. He must navigate it carefully because emotions are high.

“If there’s an apparent lack of transparency or maneouvering by certain cliques – that will create chaos.”

He conceded that there was however little time for candidates to campaign and the PF needed to select its own candidate for elections that they are almost certain to win.

“I’m in the service of the people — we’ll look at what the people want, the best fit,” he said. — AFP

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