Zambia's fiery populist, Michael Sata, wins presidential election

Will Zambia's newly-elected Michael Sata follow through on past rhetoric against foreign investment or will he continue his predecessors' business-friendly policies?

Jerome Delay/AP
Supporters of Zambia's new President, Michael Sata, gather to see him as he takes the oath of office on the steps of the Supreme Court in Lusaka, Zambia, on Friday.
Jerome Delay/AP
Zambia's new President Michael Sata releases a dove after taking the oath of office on the steps of the Supreme Court in Lusaka, Zambia, on Friday.

Zambia’s new president Michael Sata is known for his fiery speeches, his harsh criticism of Chinese investment in the Zambian copper mining industry, and his fondness for the governing philosophy of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. But in his first major statement since being declared the winner of this week’s presidential elections, the opposition leader struck a gentler line, albeit a still skeptical one.

“The rule of law and justice will be the cornerstone of my rule. I hope investors will abide by Zambia’s labour laws.” Mr. Sata said Friday at his inauguration ceremony at the Supreme Court in Lusaka on Friday. However, he also acknowledged that foreign investment is key to Zambia's future growth and promised that his government would continue to partner with foreign investors during his term in office.

Despite his reassurances, markets were rocked by the announcement. Investors began selling off Zambian currency, the kwacha, signaling nervousness that Zambia would become a riskier investment climate under the populist president with strong opinions on foreign investment. In Chingola, a city in Zambia’s northern Copperbelt region, Indian and Chinese businessmen closed their shops, a sign of concern that Sata’s victory might encourage his supporters to riot and loot shops.

But China welcomed Sata’s election, in part because Sata has hinted that his government may continue some of the business-friendly policies of his predecessor, President Rupiah Banda. Zambia is Africa’s largest producer of copper, and if production increases, it could become the fifth largest supplier in the world by 2013.

In the 2006 presidential race, Sata promised to send away some foreign businessmen, whom he called “infestors,” but at a recent campaign rally, he said of China, “We need foreign investors because they provide jobs for our people. But they must respect Zambian workers.”

In a country where 70 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, Sata's campaign platform of lower taxes, more money in people’s pockets, and promises to life people out of poverty within 90 days resonated. Yet he also told voters to “brace yourselves for hard work,” and vowed to “lead by example.”

Incumbent President Banda graciously accepted defeat, urging his supporters to accept the election result. Sata’s margin of victory was substantial enough with 95 percent of the votes tallies for the electoral commission to stop the vote count. Sata reached 1.15 million votes to Banda’s 961,000.

What remains to be seen is how Sata’s famous temper serves him in office. Nicknamed “King Cobra” for his venomous tongue and hardened by years in opposition politics, Sata is a man who speaks his mind. Some analysts question whether this style will work well in the halls of power, and in the world of international, regional and African Union diplomacy.

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