The passing of Michael Sata and the new jostle for power in Zambia

Lusaka, Zambia – Zambia is still in mourning after the burial of the late president, Michael Sata (77). Zambia’s flags fly at half-mast and some government offices and shops remain shut in memory of the man known as King Cobra.

Men and women wrapped in green and white chitenges (wraps) stamped with Sata’s face and inscribed “Vote Michael Sata” walk the streets and there’s an inescapable feeling that many Zambians will miss Sata for a long time to come.

Despite his political shortcomings and his abrasive nature, Sata was relatively well-liked. Mourners at his memorial and around the capital who I spoke to were uncertain of whether the next leader will be able to fill Sata’s shoes.

Sata left no obvious successor and by constitutional rules, the country must elect a new president within three months of his passing. His burial thus brings to an end the official mourning period and campaigns for the election of a new president will now begin.

Sata had been ill a long time and power battles among the political class were already underway well before he died. Now that he is buried, the floodgates are wide open and the race to the highest office in the land is set to escalate.

Quick to the mark, the minority opposition movement, the United Party for National Development (UPND) has already announced it’s official campaign for the presidential by-election. Rupiah Banda, who lost to Sata in the 2011 presidential election is believed to be preparing for a political comeback, despite his wife being diagnosed with cancer and seeking treatment in South Africa.

Within Sata’s own party, the Patriotic Front (PF), which smoothed over it’s cracks and put on a united front at his funeral on Tuesday, is internally divided with at least two factions tussling for the presidential seat. The PF’s central committee will soon meet to begin the process to nominate a presidential candidate for the party.

On one side is a camp in support of Sata’s expected successor, Edgar Lungu, the current party secretary general. Lungu was recently dismissed by interim President Guy Scott, an act which led to riots in the capital and the Copperbelt Province earlier this month. A firm favorite to succeed Sata, Lungu, is currently the minister of justice and the minister of defence.

On the other side is a faction reportedly aligned to Scott who, because of his Scottish parentage, is ineligible to run. The group, which appears to have no clear leader at present, is seen as wanting to keep Sata’s political vision alive.

Although some of the capital’s residents feel the PF’s leaders are “too power hungry” and “instigate the youth to act rowdy” as taxi driver Valentine Banda (26) put it, Lungu is largely seen as being capable of leading the country.

However, a host of opposition leaders as well as Sata’s son, Mulenga Sata, still stand between Lungu and the presidency

Students who I spoke to at a teaching college in Lusaka however, told me that they feel Zambia is in need of a new generation of politicians as those currently in power are merely out to serve their own interests.

Victor Mwila, a 23-year-old pharmacist from Lusaka, said he believes Zambia needs a fresh political voice.

“We have lost two leaders in three years and they went abroad to seek treatment. This tells us our health system is poor and our politicians are too old. We need younger people standing for positions,” said Mwila.

Zambia’s election is set to be fiercely contested, but the people are still confident that it is they who will ultimately decide who will take the reins.

As 47-year-old Mushikanyimbo Musonda put it, “Competition is inevitable, but people should understand there can only be one leader chosen by us, the voters.

Tendai Marima profileTendai Marima is a freelance journalist and academic researcher. Follow her on Twitter.