Zambia’s President Michael Sata (77 years old) is playing succession politics from his sickbed. He has sacked Justice Minister Wynter Kabimba – the clear favourite to take over in 2016 if the ailing head of state even makes it that far. Several local and international media reported on Thursday, August 28, that Mr Sata had sacked Mr Kabimba from his cabinet, and also as secretary general of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF). Some local sources claimed the president does not have the power to make the latter change. On Friday, August 29, our Lusaka sources confirmed that while Mr Kabimba served at the president’s pleasure in cabinet, he was elected to his party position by conference delegates and he could not be removed by decree.
Mr Kabimba had been the odds-on favourite to succeed Mr Sata, whose health – despite official claims to the contrary – will not allow him to stand for re-election in 2016, even provided he lives that long. If he dies before 2016, new presidential elections must be held within 90 days, during which time Vice President Guy Scott must act as president. Mr Scott is not eligible on parentage grounds to run for president, but the constitution allows him to act in that capacity. Mr Sata’s apparent willingness to take executive actions he is not entitled to take fits with uncomfortable dictatorial and vindictive tendencies that manifested in his leadership style almost from day one, but which have grown increasingly irrational. His behaviour was a key element in our decision to downgrade Zambia’s political risk and this week’s developments confirm our reservations over his leadership.
While elements in the PF accused Mr Kabimba and his supporters of an “attempted coup” at party leadership level, it was apparent that Mr Sata had his own dynasty plans that included his ageing uncle – current Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda – and his son, the current mayor of Lusaka. Mr Kabimba did not feature in his plans, but the president’s actions this week may not be enough to prevent Mr Kabimba from eventually succeeding him as party leader of the PF and the next president of Zambia. Zambia’s democratic process and its institutions have been damaged by Mr Sata’s executive power consolidations and irrational actions, but they are strong enough to survive. That means Mr Kabimba’s eventual fate does not depend on what Mr Sata demands.
Why do we care? This week’s developments in Zambia illustrate two clear points. First, a succession struggle is certainly underway to replace the ailing Mr Sata, whose health will not permit a second term. This succession battle has the potential to further undermine political stability in Zambia. Second, Mr Sata has become increasingly irrational and unpredictable and his determination to control the succession is a concern, as is his apparent willingness to act beyond his powers. We believe, however, that Zambia’s democracy remains strong enough to survive these latest macerations and those likely to follow in the weeks ahead.
Analyst: Gary van Staden