Zambia’s fifth president, Michael Sata, has died in London, where he had been undergoing treatment for an undisclosed illness. He was 77. During his three-year term, he promised to wipe out corruption and hold foreign investors in check. His critics say he got some things done, such as improving the nation’s infrastructure. His friends and colleagues praise him as a man of action.
Even Michael Sata knew he was better known for his sharp tongue than for his populist policies as the fifth president of Zambia.
On his official, but rarely updated, Facebook page, the late president of the Southern African nation wrote that as an up-and-coming politician, “my political style was described as ‘increasingly abrasive.’”
Hence his nickname, King Cobra.
“He is called King Cobra because he gets things done. He strikes. That was the origin of his name, his nickname, because he says, ‘I want this done.’ If it is not done, he is thumping the table the next day,” explained his vice president, Guy Scott.
But the name was also earned by his numerous sharp ripostes; at journalists, at rivals, and at ordinary citizens. He even took a stab, in 2012, at former President George W. Bush, who he called a "young man" and a "colonialist." Scott said that his sharp teeth hid a steely determination.
“I have no trouble getting on with him. He likes growling, he likes making people wake up. He has got a complicated personality, but he has the loyalty of people who know him and work with him, and love him. He has a bigger, more loyal following than any other politician in Zambia,” said Scott.
Sata was born as a colonial subject in what was then known as Northern Rhodesia, a British protectorate. He has said that he worked for a time on the railway system in Britain, though few details are available.
He ran for president four times. In his final, successful campaign, in 2011, he promised to crack down on corruption and rein in Chinese interests in the copper-rich nation.
But Sata also had a softer side. His official biography from his party, the Patriotic Front, describes him as a family man and a dedicated Catholic. And, they say, despite his achievements as a policeman, pilot and politician, he was a populist at heart, attending mass in the vernacular and refusing on principle to drink bottled water until all of his countrymen have access to clean water.
That was one of many of his goals he did not meet. According to UNICEF, more than one-third of Zambians lack access to clean water.
An organization called Zambian Watchdog gave the president across-the-board failing grades after 18 months in power, slamming him for disregarding the constitution and for lacking clear plans. They also acidly noted that his, “conduct home and abroad has been less than decent and impressive.’”
Law Society of Zambia General Secretary Likando Kalaluka said Sata improved the nation’s infrastructure, but added that his failure to pass a new constitution in a timely manner will overshadow his legacy.
“The road infrastructure [was an area he did well], and I think, to some extent, there has been some development. So he seems done well to that extent, but everything seems to be overshadowed by the delay in the constitution, the draft constitution,” said Kalaluka.
Near the end of his life, Sata was plagued by reports of ill health, and he vanished from public view for nearly three months.
His last major appearance was before the Zambian parliament in September 2014.