President Sata's death tests Zambia's history of peaceful political transition

Zambia's President Michael Sata is the second sitting president to pass away in office in the past six years. The country's reputation as a progressive democracy gives observers hope for a peaceful transfer of power.

Noor Khamis/Reuters/File
Zambia's President Michael Sata speaks to journalists at the Jan. 2012 African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Mr. Sata died overnight in London.

Zambia is facing a snap leadership transition after the unexpected death of President Michael Sata overnight in London. But the country's past success in peacefully handing over power has kept concerns of unrest at bay on a continent where power struggles are common.

President Sata is the second Zambian sitting president to pass away in office in the past six years. The smooth transition of power that followed former President Levy Mwananawasa’s death in 2008 has observers confident that the process of replacing Sata will be peaceful in this copper-rich southern African nation of 15 million.

“We are a strong constitutional democracy and we expect to have a presidential election before Jan. 28, 2015,” says Vernon Mwaanga, a veteran politician and political commentator. “We did that in 2008, and I have great confidence that … the integrity of the constitution will be respected.” 

Zambia gained independence from Britain in 1964, and has peacefully transferred power between each of its five presidents since then. Regionally, it is viewed as a progressive democracy (though it is ranked as "partly free" in the Freedom House 2014 democracy rankings, meaning there are still restrictions on political rights or civil liberties).

Mr. Mwaanga says the government wants to preserve that reputation. “We will follow the constitution to the letter to ensure that we continue to enjoy the admiration of the world, which we have enjoyed the past 50 years,” he says.

The constitution dictates that if a president passes away in office, a snap election must be held within 90 days. The vice president – whose parents are Scottish, which constitutionally bars him from running for the nation’s top seat – will serve as interim president until elections take place.

'One Zambia, One Nation'

Zambia’s first post-independence leader, President Kenneth Kaunda, played an important role in unifying the nation and giving it the stability it enjoys today. His administration coined the motto, “One Zambia, One Nation,” in its approach to nation building. President Kaunda created policies that encouraged ethnic and regional integration. This, analysts say, was a building block upon which Zambia’s democracy grew.

It’s under this slogan that politicians are encouraging Zambians to come together today as they mourn their leader.

"In this difficult time, when we have lost our beloved President Sata, we must unite and maintain peace as a country with the same foundation and a common future," former President Nevers Mumba from the Movement for Multiparty Democracy said on Zambia's national radio today. 

Sata served as Zambia’s fifth president after winning the 2011 general election by 42 percent of the vote, after failed runs in three previous presidential contests. He was known for his straight talk and biting tongue, characteristics that earned him the nickname "King Cobra." In recent years, he embarked on an unprecedented level of social and infrastructure development, which included the construction of universities in each of the nation’s ten provinces. He also worked to build hospitals and roads.

“He was an action oriented man, but not the most diplomatic person I have ever met in my life,” says Mwanga.

His health faltered throughout his time in office, and this year he rarely made public appearances. Sata was flown to London earlier this month for what the government called a “checkup.” His passing came as a surprise to many Zambians.

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