In a continent notorious for sit-tight leaders and failed elections, the smooth change of government in Zambia from the administration of Rupiah Banda to that of the veteran opposition leader Michael Chilufya Sata was a salutary lesson for African states.
Against the backdrop of the threat of destabilisation posed by post election violence in recent years in Zimbabwe, Kenya and Ivory Coast, the election in Zambia was a breath of fresh air. In an act of statesmanship rare in Africa, the loser, ex-president Banda, graciously accepted defeat with the words: "the people of Zambia have spoken and we must listen". This is the second time power has changed hands in Zambia from an incumbent president to an opposition leader, suggesting a consolidation of Zambia's democracy.
Banda also had a piece of advice for the new ruling party and the president. In a telling remark, he said: "You have the right to celebrate but do so with a magnanimous heart...Treat those you have vanquished with the respect and humility that you would expect in your hour of defeat."
After two decades of rule by the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) that swept the founding president, Kenneth Kaunda, out of power, the party lost power to the Patriotic Front in an election that was judged to be free and fair. Having won the presidential election on his fourth attempt, Sata's victory was a triumph of patience and perseverance, reminiscent of Brazil's Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva who also became his country's president on his fourth attempt. Aside from Sata's tenacity, the winning party, the Patriotic Front, mounted a spirited campaign, giving the MMD a successful run for its money.
Nicknamed "King Cobra" on account of his venomous tongue, Sata was a thorn in the flesh of the MMD government. Now that he is president he will have to tone down his rhetoric and become less combative. Mario Cuomo, a former governor of New York State in US, famously said: "You campaign in poetry but you govern in prose". Luckily Sata has shown himself to be open to compromise by forming an all-inclusive government. Some of the ministers he appointed are members of the MMD.
In an unprecedented move that would resonate in Southern Africa especially in countries with white minorities (South Africa and Zimbabwe), Sata appointed a white Zambian of Scottish descent, Guy Scott, as vice president.
As part of his efforts at promoting national reconciliation, he appointed Kaunda's son Colonel Panji Kaunda as minister of defence and named the country's three international airports in Lusaka, Livingstone and Ndola after the country's independence heroes: Kenneth Kaunda, Harry Nkumbula and Simon Kapwepwe respectively. Kaunda had been marginalised by successive MMD administrations and had even been accused by the government of Frederick Chiluba of being a Malawian.
Sata has hit the ground running by taking measures to stamp his authority on the country, replacing district commissioners and reversing the controversial sale of a state owned bank to a South African company by Banda's government. Like many African countries, Zambia is resource rich but racked by poverty and chronic unemployment. It is one of the world's largest producers of copper, the country's main export earner. In recent years the price of copper has soared, thanks to a surge in demand from emerging economies notably China. Not surprisingly, the Chinese have invested heavily in the copper mines in Zambia.
The conduct, or rather the misconduct, of the Chinese in Zambia led to acrimony between the government and opposition. Sata was critical of the government for the increasing control of the Zambian economy by the Chinese. He accused them of exploiting and maltreating Zambian workers. Since he assumed office Sata has made conciliatory gestures towards the Chinese. Zambia needs all the foreign direct investment it can get. His supporters are looking up to him to improve their living standards. It is to be hoped that Sata would live up to his promise. We wish him luck.