There is growing concern from Zambia’s opposition that President Michael Sata is in poor health and that this is hampering the normal functioning of government.
Some opposition political parties and activists believe Sata (77) has stopped chairing Cabinet meetings because he is not well.
But both the government and the governing Patriotic Front (PF) have insisted that Sata, who had a heart attack in 2008, is working and providing the necessary guidance to Cabinet ministers.
Sata, nicknamed “King Cobra” in political circles for his apparent lack of diplomacy, has not appeared in public for close to two months.
Until recently, Sata who is not camera-shy, invited journalists to State House when he opened Cabinet sessions and sometimes chided his ministers in front of the cameras.
But of late the media is no longer welcome at the Cabinet meetings and only a select few reporters – mostly from the state media – are being given limited access to Sata.
Stopping the media from witnessing Sata opening Cabinet meetings has also fuelled speculation about his health and his ability to continue in office.
The Post newspaper recently reported that it had secretly recorded Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda telling a friend that Sata is an “absentee landlord”. Chikwanda has since complained that the recording of his private conversation was immoral and unethical.
Sata was last seen in public on September 19 when he opened Parliament. Although he walked unaided, he looked frail and only managed to read less than half of a 16-page prepared speech before handing it over to the speaker of Parliament, Patrick Matibini.
United Nations address
Speculation about Sata’s health was fuelled by reports at the United Nations general assembly in New York last month that he failed to address the conference.
He was expected to speak just after Venezuela President Nicholas Maduro but the moderator was forced to skip Sata’s slot after an awkward silence and instead invited Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, to take the podium.
Harry Kalaba, the minister of foreign affairs, took care of Zambia’s business in plenary sessions in the remaining days of the UN session.
Presidential spokesperson George Chellah told reporters in New York that it was not true that Sata had been hospitalised.
Vice-President Guy Scott also dispelled speculation that Sata missed his slot because of ill health and on his return to Zambia told Parliament that the president had not received any emergency treatment in the United States.
“The country is on autopilot. I have no doubt that Mr Sata is not in control,” said Brebner Changala, a civil rights activist who went to court in an attempt to force the Cabinet to assemble a team of doctors to report on Sata’s health.
The Lusaka high court dismissed Changala’s petition in July. Judge Isaac Chali said the application lacked merit and was “frivolous and vexatious”.
Changala told the Mail & Guardian: “I have known Mr Sata for a long time now. He is a talkative man and it is not his nature to confine himself to State House and hide from the public.”
When Sata opened Parliament on September 19, journalists were prevented from going too close to him or taking close-up photographs.
Only the public broadcaster, the Zambian National Broadcasting Corporation, was given permission to transmit the opening of Parliament live. Journalists from privately owned media were barred.
The Media Institute of Southern Africa was forced to seek high court intervention over the barring of journalists from the event. The case has not been heard.
Government accused of lying
The Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), the country’s biggest opposition party, accused the governing PF of lying about Sata’s fitness to continue in office.
“The problem is not necessarily the absence of the president,” said Nevers Mumba, president of the MMD. “The problem is the fact that the PF are lying about [the condition of] the president.”
Mumba said it was difficult to establish whether Sata is able to chair Cabinet meetings and provide policy direction because of the secrecy around his health.
“They want to treat Zambians as though they are children. Zambians saw the president when he was opening Parliament and they have noticed that he is not OK,” he said.
Analysts say speculation over Sata’s health has not only sparked debate about his ability to continue in office but also on succession in the governing PF.
In case the president is incapacitated, Zambia’s Constitution allows for the vice-president to take over as acting president for not more than 90 days before presidential elections have to be held.
Scott, the vice-president and the first white person since independence to hold a Cabinet post, has been Sata’s right-hand man and is also popular in the party since it broke away from the MMD in 2001.
But because Scott’s parents are not indigenous Zambians, he would not be able to contest the presidency unless the Constitution was amended.
In August, Sata sacked his justice minister and close ally Wynter Kabimba, who was seen as his natural successor.
Kabimba, who was also secretary general of the governing party, was not popular among party rank and file and his ousting sparked days of street celebrations in Lusaka and other urban towns.
Kabimba was accused of fanning divisions and harbouring presidential ambitions. But his sacking has not stopped discussion of succession in the party.
The PF’s new secretary general, Edgar Lungu, last week distanced himself from a Facebook page that marketed him as the presidential candidate for the 2016 general election.
“[The false Facebook page] is malicious and the work of enemies of the Patriotic Front,” said Lungu, who is also the defence minister.
“It is aimed at causing anarchy by sowing seeds of discord and creating a false impression of a succession crisis in our party.”
“I have no Facebook account and I don’t intend to create one now or in the foreseeable future.”
Sports Minister Chishimba Kambwili has also dispelled claims that he has been campaigning to take over from Sata.