By Sylvester Munanjala in Lusaka, Zambia
It might be a small and not very visible southern African country but the whereabouts of Zambian president Michael Sata 77, has been a subject of worry for his close to 15 million compatriots. After more than ten years in the opposition and four presidential attempts, Sata was finally elected president in 2011 but keeping the job is now proving more challenging than dogging teargas the police threw at him when he was head of the opposition.
Sata is supposed to be receiving treatment in Israel apparently for kidney problems but some government officials claim the president returned home over the weekend. He was last seen on national television in early June looking frail in the presence of visiting Chinese president Li Yuanchao. He is reported to have been flown to Israel for medical treatment on June 20 2014 and has not been seen ever since. Some state officials now say he is back home, a claim that is hotly disputed.
Chilufya Tayali, editor of The Zambian Voice denies claims the president is back in the capital Lusaka on the grounds that he is one of several journalists now camped at the Kenneth Kaunda airport looking out for just such an eventuality-the return of Zambia’s fifth post independent president weeks after he could not fulfill his duties for health reasons and had to be secretly evacuated abroad for treatment
The BBC, Aljazeera and South African Media organizations have all carried stories questioning the whereabouts and state of health of the missing Sata with the government refusing to make any official statement for more than two weeks. It took the intervention of National Assembly speaker Patrick Matibini when he directly asked Vice president Guy Scott to explain to the house and the country the president’s whereabouts.
“The president is in Israel on a working holiday and he will in due course meet president Shimon Peres when it’s convenient for both presidents” vice president Guy Scott told parliament on Wednesday June 25 2014 after opposition members of parliament raised a strong motion demanding explanations of the presidents’ dissapearance. Speaking to the BBC later, VP Scott said that the presidents’ visit to Israel was an ‘open-ended-process’ and that he did not know when he was due back home. He accused some media organizations of trying to destabilize the government by claiming he was gravely sick.
However, media reports in the Washington Post and in the Middle East said that the Israeli president traveled to Washington to meet with president Obama to discuss the killings of three Israeli teenagers and an Arab teenager that has again caused violence in the middle east.
There are reports before his evacuation, president Sata handed over his presidential powers to Justice Minister Wynter Kabimba to act in his absence, A clause in Zambia’s constitution prevents vice president Guy Scott who is white, from replacing Sata because non of his parents were born in Zambia. Opposition People’s Party president Mike Mulongoti, questioned the constitutionality of the interim power transger to the Justice Minister.
In the meantime, confusion caused by the absence of the president has mounted across the country. Three opposition activists were recently arrested for breach of the peace when hey claimed the president was dying.
Fresher Siwale, Richard Hijijika and George Chomela all members of the opposition UPND party were arrested with tracks calling on people to vote for their candidate in the next elections in 2016 because Sata will die soon. Their trial is scheduled for July 15 2014 and they could face up to five years in prison if convicted. Israeli officials have since issued a statement confirming that president Sata was indeed in the country.
“Sata is here on a private visit and he is receiving medical treatment. He did not come to lie on a beach.” An Israeli official told News24 in Jerusalem
Sata reportedly suffered a heart attack before he came in power in 2008. Concerns about his health persisted and his opponents claimed he collapsed at least once during the six week election campaign for the presidency in 2011 – an account he denied.
Elected in 2002, Zambia’s third president Levy Manawasa died in Paris on August 19 2008 after suffering two strokes.
Suzyo Chewe 42, said she was afraid a repeat of the 2008 national crisis when former president Levy Mwanawasa died in office. She said it was vital government officials keep people abreast with an update of his health situation in case of any eventuality
Martin Mbewe 33 a businessman in Lusaka told Iroko Magazine that the absence of the president was causing problems especially for foreign investors
“Who would want to invest in a country without the head, especially if there’s no clear indication of when he’ll come back? For Zambia to develop, we need investors and for us to woo these investors to our country, we need the head of state to be in good health”.
Sageant Max Phiri 56, a retired army sergeant told Iroko Magazine that with regards to peace and stability in the country, the government is doing right by not revealing the president’s health position. Sageant Phiri said revealing the president’s health status could alarm the nation and cause a coup or a brutal fight for power.
United Party for National Development (UPND) presidential advisor William Banda has described as unprofessional the manner in which government officials had been handling the president’s evacuation to Israel.