Zambia named Guy Scott as its interim president on Wednesday following the death of president Michael Sata at a hospital in the United Kingdom on Tuesday night.
The white son of English and Scottish immigrants, Scott – who was vice-president – will take charge for three months until an election is held to choose a permanent successor, officials announced.
He cannot be a candidate under the existing Constitution because his parents were not born in Zambia.
“It is a bit of a shock to the system, coupled with this news from London,” Scott (70) said on Wednesday.
“Everyone is getting used to calling me ‘Your Excellency’, and I’m getting used to it. There are truckloads of police following me on motorbikes. It’s very strange but I’m very proud.” Sata, who swept platforms at British railway stations before rising to the presidency, died aged 77 after a long, unspecified illness.
Dubbed “King Cobra” for his abrasive rhetoric, he enjoyed warm relations with President Robert Mugabe of neighbouring Zimbabwe and was accused by critics of autocratic tendencies.
Sata and Scott came to power in 2011. Scott’s race makes him a rarity in post-colonial African politics.
“There has been no hint of any resentment of a white man being made vice-president,” the former farmer and agriculture minister said at the time. “I have long suspected Zambia is moving from a post-colonial to a cosmopolitan condition.”
Fewer than 40 000 of Zambia’s 13-million population are white. In a Guardian interview last year, Scott, whose wife is from London, said: “[Sata] says things like ‘What would you be if you weren’t white?’ I said ‘The president?’ That shut him up.”
Sata, a devout Catholic, was a former policeman, car assembly worker, trade unionist, taxidermist and platform sweeper at London’s Victoria station.
He had been a perennial opposition leader, losing three presidential votes, but finally became independent Zambia’s fifth president against a backdrop of public anger at corruption among those yet to benefit from a copper mining boom.
He had run for election as one of the few African leaders apparently willing to stand up to China, describing the companies extracting Zambia’s natural resources as “infesters”.
But he appeared to tone down the rhetoric once he was in power.
Sata was never one for diplomatic niceties. When a BBC journalist asked whether he was losing an election in 2008, he snapped: “I haven’t bloody lost an election, so don’t waste my time.”
In 2012 Sata reportedly chided former United States president George W Bush for arriving 15 minutes late for a meeting, berating him about colonialism.
His government recently cracked down on political opponents and critical journalists who reported on his long-suspected illness and frequent “working trips” abroad, apparently for medical treatment.
In January, an opposition politician was charged with defamation for comparing Sata with a local potato whose name is slang for someone who doesn’t listen, and in June the authorities charged three opposition activists for claiming that the president was dying.
Asked whether Sata had chosen him as his successor, Scott said: “He would never be so polite as to do that. But he said he was happy that I was there, to take over if needed.
“I hadn’t spoken to him for some days. I won’t run for the presidency at the election because, constitutionally, I can’t. – © Guardian News & Media