After disappearing from public view for many weeks and fueling widespread rumours about the status of his health, Zambia’s President Michael Sata briefly met with media today at State House during the swearing in of veteran political Daniel Munkombwe as Minister of Southern Province.
Today’s event at State House was preceded by an appearance during a Good Friday Mass at St Ignatius Catholic Church in Lusaka, where appeared to want to address the health rumours when he pulled aside a reporter from the pro-government Post Newspaper and told him to publish an article that the president is “enjoying good health.” The appearance at church was followed by a trip to Luangwa to commission a roads project, while the head of state is expected to soon depart for China to meet the new President Xi Jinping and sign some dozen business deals.
And while President Sata’s sudden display of vitality after months of near-total absence has eased some concerns, his behaviour and statements have raised alarm among some observers close to the administration.
While swearing in Munkombwe, an elderly former MMD minister who once served under Kaunda’s UNIP party, President Sata appeared to have forgotten that Munkombwe had already been sworn in five times. Reminded of this point by Vice President Guy Scott, President Sata awkwardly stated, “Now who am I supposed to trust between you and Munkombwe, because both of you are the same. You are both old, the only difference between the two of you is your skin colour.”
At this point, President Sata appeared to lose interest in the proceedings, and began berating the State House staff for not watering the lawn. He asked Mr. Kasanda, the deputy secretary to Cabinet, why the lawn was turning brown outside the window.
“Why is my grass brown? There is a lot of water at State House but you find the grass is dry, it’s now brown. Anyway very soon I will start pruning human beings who are not doing their job,” said Sata.
President Sata then began to threaten officials who just “sit idle in their offices and enjoy taxpayer’s money.”
“What are we here for?,” President Sata asked his cabinet, causing visible discomfort among some ministers. “What are we getting taxpayers money for? Because the vehicles we are using is taxpayers money, the fuel you will be using is taxpayers, the offices, secretaries is taxpayers money but what are you saying thank you for? Just sitting in the office,” he said.
President Sata went on to comment that he was embarrassed that the road to Lusaka through the Chalimbana area still had no tar, as well as the road from Chongwe to Kasisi. Criticising his deputy ministers – many of whom have been plucked from the opposition to serve as crucial legislative votes – he ordered them to go out into the provinces to discover what work needed to be done.
Many road works in Zambia ground to a halt following the 2011 elections which brought the Patriotic Front to power, as most contracts were put under review and in some cases, awarded to other vendors. Shortly afterward, President Sata put the Roads Development Agency (RDA) under direct control of State House, leading to many concerns over accountability in the tendering process.
The president’s odd behaviour today is likely to increase speculation over a possible transfer of power to one of his deputies in coming months, which would prompt snap presidential by-elections.