The President Who Wasn’t There: Michael Sata’s Absenteeism

There’s a well known saying that 90% of success is just showing up, but by that measurement, Zambia hasn’t been doing very well.

The 19th annual African Union Summit held this past 16th of July in Ethiopia was one of the most important events on the continent to take place this year.  But despite having earlier confirmed his attendance, Zambia’s new president, Michael Sata, failed to attend.

Then there was the the fifth Ministerial Conference of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC) held in Beijing, a critically important event to which President had also confirmed his attendance, but then failed to show up.  Much closer to home, President Sata could not find the time to attend the the 2012 CNN African Journalist awards in Lusaka this past weekend.

We were all relieved to see President Sata’s safe return to Lusaka on July 17th from his mysterious secret trip to “London.”  Even among those who disagree with the president’s policies and leadership style, no sane and reasonable person could wish him harm.  Furthermore, it does not seem that many among the opposition have considered just how bad it could be if for any reason President Sata were unable to continue his duties in office:  the possibility of a full blown constitutional crisis as various chiefs tried to dislodge Vice President Guy Scott from the role of Acting President (although the constitution clearly orders the VP to take over the instruments of power no matter the parentage clause).  Among both his friends and enemies, everyone should praying for the president – praying that he is able to complete a term in office and keep the even worse elements of the PF at bay.

But in the meantime, as we await more information and details about what exactly the president has been up to lately, we have unfortunately become a country that is judged by its absence of leadership more than its presence.  The whereabouts and activities of our elected leader are unknown to the ordinary citizen, and probably unknown to most of his cabinet, judging by the panicked public statements and cover-ups (amusingly, during Sata’s first trip to India, the press offices later cooked up stories about how he “wooing Indian investors.”)  Sometimes we don’t even know who is acting president (most recently it was Minister of Agriculture Emmanuel Chenda).

We are told our president is on a private trip, but only after he has departed to parts unknown.  But at the same time, we are told that he was not receiving any medical treatment.  Anyone who suggests that Sata went to India for medical treatment may face arrest (such as the chaps over on Zambian Watchdog, who have been threatened with closure by the Ministry of Defence).  Are we supposed to believe that the President would miss such critically important meetings to attend to “personal matters”?  Ironically, the secrecy and the so called privacy attached to this meeting is not any different from his April visit to India.

President Sata failed to represent the people of Zambia at the 19th African Union meeting, which was doubly important as member states negotiated the creation of a region-wide rapid response force to address violent conflicts in areas such as Mali, Congo-Rwanda, and Sudan-South Sudan, while also attending to the rather important business of electing a new chairperson following a stalemate vote at the last meeting. South Africa’s Home Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was able to edge out incumbent Jean Ping from Gabon, which significantly transforms the reach and power of the AU from Pretoria.  It was agreed at the last SADC meeting that all member states would help rally behind Dlamini-Zuma’s candidacy, but they ended up having to do without Sata.  But where was our president?  Surely we have angered many neighbors and allies with this unprofessionalism.

Sata was similarly happy to let the South Africans speak on our behalf at the China-Africa Summit in Beijing, where Jacob Zuma spoke out in defiance against imbalanced trade relations, but also negotiated $20 billion in loans.  And where were we?  How much of that will come to Zambia when we can’t be bothered to show up?

Whenever Sata disappears for “personal reasons,” we see his lackeys hard at work to make up for his absence.  Post Newspaper editor Fred M’membe does his best to stamp out any speculations, serving as a damage control mechanism, while press aide (and former Post reporter) George Chellah drafted up some skeleton statements regarding the thoughts and activities of our Head of State – always using particularly eloquent language that I have never heard come out of Sata’s mouth.

The unfortunate conclusion that we are forced to make from President Sata’s problematic absenteeism is that his health is failing, and that his administration refuses to disclose any information to citizens.  Why can we not know what is happening, what is the harm in that?  It would seem that we thought we “elected” a president, but instead we have anointed a leader with the flamboyance of a Hugo Chavez and the paranoid secrecy of a Kim Jong-Il.

This speculation concerning Sata’s potential inability to serve is being reinforced on a daily basis by the desperation exhibited among members of the Patriotic Front.  There is the ridiculously draconian attempt to shut down Zambian Watchdog, to the horror of international press freedom NGOs.  There are the daily attacks on Nevers Mumba, and the increasing provocations of the UPND and threats against Hakainde Hichilema.  The PF has even gone so far as to plant a fake story in The Post quoting an “anonymous source” to argue that former President Rupiah Banda was against a future Bemba leader, and sought to promote HH over his own party, the MMD.  One may speculate that there is a political strategy at play to attempt to drive a wedge between the UPND and MMD, which have been growing toward a new pact.

It would be a great tragedy and a significant political crisis if President Sata were to choose to resign, and we can only hope that he makes a quick recovery.  Zambia cannot afford the instability, reputation damage, distraction, and staggering costs of two presidential elections a year.  But judging by the behaviour of the circling vultures of Kabimba, GBM, Lubinda, and Chickwanda, the campaigning has already begun.

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