By Paul Ndiho, Washington D.C.
The Southern African Nation of Zambia is mourning the death of President Michael Sata, who died late Tuesday in London. Mr. Sata had been undergoing treatment in the British capital, for an undisclosed illness. He was 77.
President Sata’s health had been a concern since June, after he traveled to Israel for medical treatment and then did not make any public appearances, for three months. Mr. Sata had led Zambia since winning an election in 2011 that ended the 20-year rule of the movement for multi-party democracy party. Sata pledged to fight corruption and help Zambia’s poor, while also working to improve working conditions at mines in Africa’s second biggest copper-producing country. Mr. Sata was known for his sharp wit and fiery speeches, which earned him the nickname “king cobra.”
Zambian vice president Guy Scott has been named the interim leader. Defense minister Edgar Lungu, said the country will hold a presidential election, to choose a permanent successor to Sata, within three months.
Earlier this month, Zambian government released its final draft constitution to the public as Zambians reflect on 50 years of freedom from colonial rule. The southern African nation has been fairly stable for most of its post-independence, with an economy recently classified by the World Bank as a lower-middle-income nation.
Zambia’s ruling party, the patriotic front, says it’s committed to giving Zambians a people-driven constitution and it remains committed to giving the Zambians a constitution that will stand the test of time.
Andrew Ntewewe, President of the Young African Leader Initiative, whose organization has been pushing for reforms, has played an important role in the draft constitution process. He says historically, any time Zambians want to come up with a constitution, it has to do with elections.
“We are not looking for a constitution simply for the 2016 elections. We believe that elections are very important because they form the bedrock of democratic governance. But elections alone are not the entire constitution. So they’re simply a component of the constitution.”
Plans to overhaul the constitution were announced shortly after Michael Sata was elected president in 2011, as part of a series of steps in his top-to-bottom review of the country’s policies. However, critics accuse the government of deliberately stalling the process in the interests of those in power. Others say the constitutional reform process has been slow to gather momentum because of a lack of consensus building from the various stakeholders.
“We can do this process without political expedience. We can do this process by seeking stakeholder involvement and consensus building. We can do this process to ensure that we can have a referendum alongside the 2016 general election.
In recent years Zambia has enjoyed political stability and has annual economic growth rates of 7 percent. The World Bank now classifies it as a lower-middle-income nation rather than low-income, meaning its gross national income per person has risen above about 1,000 U.S. dollars.
But Africa’s second-largest copper producer, home to 14.5 million people, is still struggling with poverty, and high unemployment. Zila Milupi, a social entrepreneur and co-founder of a nonprofit called “Winners Circle” says young Zambians have a role to play in solving the unemployment problem.
“I think that if young people take the bull by the horns and start to believe actually in the potential that they have, if we start to be more open-minded and if we start to foster creativity and risk taking, which I think is currently probably the biggest inhibitors of innovation technology taking off in Zambia. I think if we make deliberate efforts to do those things and to really cultivate an entrepreneurship culture, i think that there really could be a significant growth sector for Zambia.”
To get a sense of what Zambians think about their 50th independence anniversary, i spoke to a couple of residents on the streets of the capital, Lusaka.
“After our independence, we have had a lot of rural-urban migration so the towns now are full of people; unemployed and employed. The economy has changed, we have developed to a certain extent, but we have not reached where we are supposed to be in 50 years.”
“We have enjoyed peace; we have enjoyed harmony, and a lot of good things. A long time ago, people never used to travel safely. There were limitations and now we have seen to say that people have evolved.”
President Sata’s death comes at a time when the Southern African nation is celebrating 50 years of independence. Meanwhile, Zambia’s sometimes rocky relationship with china is now steadily growing. A drive through Lusaka and other cities shows a country on the move, with huge Chinese infrastructure projects spurring development.