LUSAKA, Zambia (AFP) — Zambian President Michael Sata died Tuesday evening after an illness, the government in Lusaka said Wednesday, months after he reportedly visited Israel for medical treatment.
Sata, who was 77, rose from cleaning railway platforms in London to his country’s highest office, where he vowed to sweep away corruption but leaned heavily on political foes.
Sata died at about 11 p.m. in London, where he had been receiving treatment for a long-rumored but undisclosed illness.
In June, Sata visited Israel on what Zambian officials said was a “working visit” at the invitation of then president Shimon Peres. However, Israeli sources said he spent several days at Sheba Medical Center.
It was not clear if Sata ever actually met with Peres during the furtive visit, which was dogged with rumors in Zambia over the leader’s health.
For supporters who voted him into office in 2011, he was a no-nonsense man of action. For critics, the former policeman, trade unionist and taxidermist was an authoritarian populist.
What is undisputed is that he seemed to revel in scorched earth politics.
Detractors, political foes, the media and even allies frequently came under attack from a man who earned the sobriquet “King Cobra.”
He once publicly upbraided his whole cabinet, threatening to collapse his own government if they did not do a better job.
The final period of Sata’s rule saw a crackdown on political opponents and critical journalists who reported on his long-suspected illness and frequent “working trips” abroad, apparently for medical treatment.
In January 2014, an opposition politician was charged with defamation for calling him a potato. In June the authorities charged three opposition activists for claiming that he was dying.
Sata’s surprise election victory, and a calm power transfer raised hopes things were looking up for his copper-rich but dirt-poor southern African nation.
He vowed to be a champion of the poor, unveiling a plan to transform the country within 90 days by tackling corruption, lowering taxes, creating jobs and scoring a better deal with what he once called Chinese “infestors.”
But it quickly became clear that the targets of his corruption fight were more often than not his political adversaries, including his predecessor Rupiah Banda, who was slapped with various graft charges and blocked from leaving the country.
On the election trail Sata promised to free the media from government interference, but once in office he sacked critical journalists and heads of the state television and newspapers.
Born on July 6, 1937 in the Mpika district in the north of the then-British colony of Northern Rhodesia, Michael Chilufya Sata had little formal education.
After basic schooling he joined a seminary, with a view to joining the priesthood, according to Zambian historian Field Ruwe. But it was not to be, and he instead entered the police force.
Sata was later arrested. The reason is subject to some controversy — Sata claimed he was jailed for his involvement in the independence fight, while adversaries claim it was for a criminal offence.
On his release he became involved in politics via the trade union movement. After a period in Britain — where he at one stage cleaned railway stations — and some time spent in business as a board member of a taxidermy firm, he became more firmly involved with the United National Independence Party.
Years as a party apparatchik earned the Catholic father of eight the governorship of the capital, Lusaka, under Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda.
He later served in several ministerial portfolios, but tensions with Kaunda saw him jump ship to the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, which he in turn left to form the breakaway Patriotic Front in 2001.
Ever the showman, in his 2011 presidential campaign he paraded through the streets in a speedboat pulled on a trailer. “Jump on board and be saved from poverty” was the message of his political Noah’s Ark.
He was catapulted to the presidency amid public anger at corruption and frustration among those yet to benefit from a copper mining boom.
But he leaves behind a country buckling under the weight of unemployment, which remains around 60 percent.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.