In the late hours of October 28th, 2014, Zambian President Michael Sata died due to complications from an undisclosed ailment at King Edward VII Hospital in London. Mr Sata, who was elected president in 2011 as leader of the ascendant Patriotic Front party (PF), was a career politician in Zambia. At first aligned with the United National Independence Party of Zambia’s inaugural president Kenneth Kaunda, then with the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD), Mr Sata left the MMD in 2001 after being shunned from presidential consideration to create the PF. However, it is another leading politician in the PF and the Zambian Vice President, Dr Guy Scott, who today attracts the spotlight and assumes the role of President of Zambia, and is the first white president to lead a sub-Saharan African country since F.W. de Klerk at the end of apartheid rule in South Africa.
Born in 1944 in Livingstone in what was then known as Northern Rhodesia, Dr Scott has held various positions in the Zambian government and, like the late Mr Sata, has switched party alliances. Originally elected on the MMD ticket in the 1991 elections – the first free and multi-party elections in Zambia since 1968 – as a Member of Parliament to represent the Mpika district in northeastern Zambia, Dr Scott was appointed as Minister of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries, and charged with the task of bringing the Zambian agricultural sector back from the brink after a major drought that lasted the length of the early 1990s. Dr Scott left MMD in 1993, however, and was in and out of politics in one form or another when he joined with Mr Sata in 2001. Dr Scott was once again elected to Parliament in 2006, when the PF became the official opposition in Zambia, to represent the Lusaka Central district. Finally in 2011, the Patriotic Front succeeded handsomely in the presidential elections, where Michael Sata won with Guy Scott as his running mate. Importantly, these elections were uncontested; the Zambian Chief Justice swore in Mr Sata peacefully, and the new opposition took its seats in Parliament.
Indeed, it is these free and fair elections and peaceful political changeovers in the twenty-first century that make Zambia the exception to the rule on the African continent, especially when considering the political difficulties of neighbors like Zimbabwe and Kenya. Exceptional too, is the political rise of Dr Scott as a white African in a majority black African nation. Moreover, Dr Scott’s popularity and ability in his job as MP and vice president points to a rare moment of non-racial politics in sub-Saharan African countries containing white minority populations. To many Zambians assessing Dr Scott’s leadership capabilities, it will matter less that he is a white African than whether he can successfully execute as President the challenges that face their country. He is, above all, a man that seems skilled at the real politics of the day in Zambia, focused on the issues that confront his government (including corruption), and whip smart on the topic of pro-growth and pro-job development that is so desperately needed in Zambia. In a presentation and question and answer session before the Overseas Development Institute in April 2012, Dr Scott fielded hard-hitting questions on the nature of long-term growth in his country with the deftness of a seasoned politician, and the practicality of a farmer, as was his profession before politics. Dr Scott displayed particular skill in his perception of pricing risk in Zambia, and its impact on longer-term growth and investment in various sectors of the country’s economy.
The above points indicate Dr Scott’s skill as a Zambian politician, but the question presented today is if now acting-President Scott will have staying power in the Zambian political sphere. There is no doubt that he is a popularly elected politician; Dr Scott won his parliamentary election with nearly 62 per cent of the vote in Lusaka Central in 2011. However, the Zambian constitution guarantees a 90-day transition period upon the death of a sitting president until a special by-election must be held, a fact that puts a time stamp on Dr Scott’s current office. What is more contentious, though, is whether this popular Zambian politician will be able to run in that by-election. In its current state, the constitution contains a ‘parentage clause’ inserted by former President Frederick Chiluba to stop then-candidate Kaunda from running again due to his father’s Malawian heritage.
As such, the current Zambian constitution asserts that the president of Zambia must have parents who are Zambian by ‘birth or descent’, though the Supreme Court of Zambia called this clause into question in the 1998 case of ‘Lewanika & Others v Chiluba’, when the court was asked to disqualify a potential presidential candidate on the basis of the individual’s father’s non-Zambian citizenship. In its decision, the Court argued that because the independent state of Zambia was created on 24 October 1964, those resident in the territory formalised as Zambia at that time automatically became citizens of the new state, and the citizenship of his or her parents was effectively beside the point. The Court also ruled that the clause had greater bearing regarding the future inhabitants of Zambia, and further that there was no legal rationale for outright racial discrimination in the text of original constitutional or the parentage clause. When applied to the circumstance of Dr Scott, it becomes clear that his acquisition of citizenship upon statehood legally protects him from the parentage clause, and that a legal challenge to his interim presidency, or a possible run in the upcoming by-elections, may be unfounded. In its assessment of the parentage clause, the Zambian Supreme Court makes a significant commentary: that the manipulation of the constitution to suit the particularities of one political contest is a very dangerous game indeed. Further, this subversion could conceivably threaten the political progress that Zambia has made since the reinstatement of free and fair elections. In this way, Zambia’s track record of peaceful transitions will be put to the test in the case of a potential Scott run for the presidency in January.
Today, Zambia’s cabinet acted quickly to instate Dr Scott as the president of Zambia. Today, it shows that politics are on the side of an African leader who, by nature of his ancestry, holds a rarified position amongst the governments of the continent. It remains to be seen whether politics, or the law, will be on the side of Dr Scott tomorrow, or in three months time when and if he decides to run. What is clear is that this is neither some sort of neo-colonial nightmare, nor a power play by shady authoritarian leaders. Rather, it is a sign that the Zambian multi-party system is as robust as ever, and in the light of President Sata’s death, that the structures to ensure peaceful transitions of power, the stability of law and order, and political freedoms, are firmly in place – for now.