The incumbent, Rupiah Banda, had managed to entrench himself and his family so firmly in Zambian bureaucracy and business circles that they were almost untouchable. Banda’s two sons, James and Henry, were the go-to people for most government deals, and you had to be ready to pay their sizeable facilitation fees.
Banda’s party, the Movement for Multi-Party Democracy, was in power for 20 years and even if the people were fed up with the status quo, Banda’s rigging mechanisms could have pushed him over the finish line first, as it seemed to have done before. But both Sata and Banda underestimated the Zambian people, often seen as docile because the country hadn’t seen large-scale violence after independence.
So come one hot day in September, 74-year-old Sata was sworn in as president of Zambia, the country’s fifth democratically elected president in 40 years.
Sata is no stranger to hardship. As a young Zambian, he left the country and became a train operator for British Rail. The bustling Victoria Station in the middle of London was his stomping ground. After his stint in the UK, for which he still carries a clear fondness, he received military training in the former Soviet Union and East Germany, where he learned to fly a plane. Later he would become the first black member of Kitwe Flying Club in Zambia, and the first black man in the country to own a plane.
According to aides, Sata made his money by being a labour consultant. When he returned to Zambia, he became involved in politics and rose to become the governor of Lusaka.
But he became disillusioned with former president Kenneth Kaunda and his United National Independence Party, and instead joined former president Frederick Chiluba’s Movement for Multi-Party Democracy. When Chiluba chose Levy Mwanawasa as his successor instead of Sata, the former police officer packed his bags and set up his own shop – the Patriotic Front, which would later carry him into the top job.
Sata came into office in September with a long to-do list. He clearly wanted to be the turbo injection that Zambia needed. He set himself a 90-day deadline which, he told City Press, was meant for “radical changes”.
“A blueprint for success will be completed in this period,” he declared boldly.
On the face of it he meant business. Taxes and interest rates were cut, mining royalty tax was doubled to boost state funds to deliver services and a campaign against corruption was launched. Sata reduced the size of Cabinet from 26 to 19 ministries and cut unnecessary government trips abroad. Which might explain why he has not yet made a state visit, despite South Africa and Angola fighting to be the first country to host the new president.
State media was liberalised, with government offering to offload 35% of its shares in the two daily newspapers, the Daily Mail and the Times of Zambia. The partisan officials of the national broadcaster were sacked, as well as many senior officials who were part of the previous regime in various government departments.
He told the Chinese there was a new sheriff in town, and bad labour practices in mines and businesses would not be tolerated.
He even cancelled a deal where a Zambian bank, Finance Bank, would have been sold to South Africa’s FirstRand. His main reason was that the deal was corrupt, but a secondary reason was that it was a national asset that was returned to Zambian hands. For a few weeks there it looked like Zambia would finally get the leader it wanted – one who was committed to making the country work.
For all his energy, Sata was no diplomat. He recently embarrassed the Chinese ambassador who brought a letter of congratulations to the new president. “Open it and read it”, Sata told the flustered diplomat in full view of Cabinet members.
He caused more red faces when he rushed to open the car door for a British diplomat who visited State House, leaving his bodyguards irritated with their boss’s disregard for protocol.
State House in Lusaka is one of the few places that display signs of the slight colonial heritage. The single-storey building is set on a large compound with imposing pillars and sprawling gardens. The filling station in the corner detracts a little bit from the stately offices of the president and his advisers, where they even serve Rooibos tea to South African guests.
This is where Sata made his first major blunder, and where the cracks of his presidency started to show – a mere month after he first stepped foot in State House.
He tried to appoint – on the sly – two provincial governors who were facing corruption charges, which flew in the face of his campaign promise to root out corruption.
After explaining his decision to City Press, he didn’t seem like a fearless, corruption-busting leader: “The issue of (Xavier) Chungu was mere media speculation and (Emmanuel) Mwamba has just been redeployed. He is not
a new appointee.”
But Chungu arrived at State House a few weeks ago to be sworn in – all dressed up, aides say – on the day the story about his appointment broke in the independently owned newspaper The Post. As former intelligence chief, he was of use to Sata when he was on the other side, and now it was payback time.
Sata will stand or fall, his advisers say, by the way he takes decisions. If he does it collectively, he may go down as the man who promised and delivered. But his behind-the-scenes, consulting-no-one decision-making is not winning him friends. Therefore some erratic decision-making is to be expected.
Zambians are patient people, but not infinitely so. Sata, together with his new collective, will find a score-card for himself in the next ballot.
» Rossouw is the international correspondent for Media24