Zambian President Michael Sata, a longtime opposition leader who was finally elected president in 2011, died after an illness, the Zambian government said Wednesday. The Cabinet met to discuss a political transition, which would include elections within 90 days in the southern African nation.
Sata died shortly after 11 p.m. on Tuesday at London's King Edward VII hospital, where he was being treated, Cabinet secretary Roland Msiska said in a statement.
Sata's wife, Christine Kaseba-Sata, and his son, Mulenga Sata, were at the 77-year-old president's side when he died, Msiska said. Mulenga Sata is the mayor of the Zambian capital, Lusaka.
"I urge all of you to remain calm, united and peaceful during this very difficult period," Msiska said in an appeal to Zambians.
The Zambian Cabinet discussed plans for a political handover, a Zambian official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media.
Defense Minister Edgar Lungu, who is also secretary general of the ruling Patriotic Front party, was appointed acting president when Sata traveled to London earlier this month.
The vice president is Guy Scott, a white Zambian whose appointment in 2011 caused a stir in Zambia. Scott was previously agriculture minister, and has also worked in Zambia's finance ministry.
Under the constitution, Scott would become acting president until elections, said Robert Besseling, an analyst at IHS Country Risk. However, Scott cannot become a fully empowered president because of his Scottish parentage, and he has repeatedly said he does not have presidential ambitions, according to Besseling.
Zambia had already declared Wednesday to be a national day of mourning for 26 people, all but three of them schoolchildren, who died Oct. 24 when a crowded boat capsized on Lake Kariba, near the border with Zimbabwe.
The children were on their way to a ceremony marking Zambia's 50th anniversary of independence from Britain. Sata was unable to preside over the national celebrations because he was in the London hospital.
Kenya, South Africa and other countries sent condolences to Zambia after Sata died. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Sata "played a commanding role in the public life of his country over three decades."
Rumors that Sata was seriously ill had gripped Zambia since the leader largely dropped out of public view months ago, and opposition groups had questioned whether Sata was fit to lead a country of 15 million people that has enjoyed robust economic growth but suffers widespread poverty.
On Sept. 19, Sata spoke at the opening of parliament in Lusaka, poking fun at speculation about his failing health, saying that he was still alive.
Following that appearance, Sata failed to give a scheduled address at the United Nations in New York and police said doctors treated him in a hotel room.
Earlier this year, Sata traveled to Israel amid speculation he was seeking medical treatment. On Oct. 20, Zambia said Sata had left for a "medical check-up abroad."
Sata was called "Mr. King Cobra" for his sharp-tongued remarks. He had a mixed relationship with Chinese investors in Zambian mines and other infrastructure, criticizing them as exploitative but toning down his rhetoric after taking office.
Some critics say Sata became increasingly intolerant as president. An opposition leader, Frank Bwalya, was acquitted this year of defamation charges after he compared Sata to a local potato whose name is slang for someone who doesn't listen.
As an opposition leader, Sata lost three presidential votes, breaking the jinx to become Zambia's fifth president in 2011. He also served in previous governments, and was a member of every major party.
Sata was born in Mpika in what was then northern Rhodesia, and worked as a police officer and trade unionist under colonial rule. He also trained as a pilot in Russia.
After independence in 1964, he joined Kenneth Kaunda's United National Independent Party, becoming governor of Lusaka, a city as well as a province, in 1985.
He resigned from Kaunda's party in 1991 and joined the newly formed Movement for Multiparty Democracy, later serving as a party lawmaker for 10 years and as minister for local government, labor and social security, and health.
In 2001, he left to form his Patriotic Front party. In 2008, he suffered a stroke and went to South Africa for treatment. The same year, President Levy Mwanawasa died following a stroke and a special election held later saw Sata narrowly lose to Rupiah Banda, who had been Mwanawasa's vice president.
Sata's wife is a medical doctor and the couple had eight children.
Sata introduced Kaseba-Sata at the opening of parliament last month, crediting her with tough love.
"She has made me stay up to now," he said. "I haven't died yet."
Torchia contributed to this report from Johannesburg.