By GERSHOM NDHLOVU
You got to love Michael Sata, Zambia’s fifth president, or hate him—for his abrasiveness bordering on rudeness tinged with crude language—and now as head of state, disregard for protocol. The case that immediately comes to mind in this “department” is his conduct on his first international trip as head of state when he allegedly defied Uganda’s protocol officials at the Intergovernmental Conference on the Great Lakes Region meeting in Kampala recently.
Another—call it strange—case is when Mr Sata caused a security and protocol nightmare in Livingstone where he went to meet Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe in Livingstone, on the border with Zimbabwe. He refused to use regular vehicles in the presidential motorcade which usually comprise Mercedes Benz cars, BMWs, high end Toyota models, an ambulance or two and numerous luxury cars. He demanded a blue and white UTTA type minibus to ferry him from the Harry Mwaanga Airport to the venue of the meeting.
But the story that has prompted me to do this write up is what started off on Facebook but later reported on some Zambian news websites, that the current President of the Republic of Zambia (POTROZ), arrived at the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport from an international trip during a downpour but declined to be covered with an umbrella by an aide.
Am I surprised? No! In my younger days as a reporter on the Zambia Daily Mail’s Sunday Mail, I had an opportunity to travel with Mr Sata on some trips outside Lusaka on more than a couple of times where I got at close quarters with the man. I am also one who experienced his abrasiveness first hand particularly when he was MMD national secretary and I as Deputy News Editor and Mr Sata’s mbuya.
The first time was when we travelled to Eastern Province when he was Minister of Health c1995 on a tour of health facilities. Using a Zambia Flying Doctor Service plane, we flew to Lundazi after failing to land in Petauke which was to be the first scheduled stop but the airstrip was overgrown. The welcome in Lundazi was sort of muted because he was not expected to get there when he did. But by the time we arrived at the next stop, Chipata, the organisers had sorted themselves out.
Forget about the visit to Chipata General Hospital which was a very officious affair with Mr Sata taking to task the executive director to task for a few things he thought they were going wrong. Come the political leg of the trip, we were driven to Navutika, a shanty compound to the west of Kapata township. There, party cadres had organised themselves singing and dancing to welcome Mr Sata. The way the man jumped into the action, hugging the dirty looking villagers, shaking hands with them, laughing and singing left me speechless.
For the night stop, we went to Katete where we found cadres gathered at Mphangwe Motel. To cut the long story short, there was a lot of merry making with enough food, drink and jokes with everybody who was there. What was in short supply was the nonsense about “balekeni baMinister bapumule.” In the end it was Mr Sata who ensured we were all safely tucked in our beds for those of us who were to spend the night at the motel.
The Eastern Province trip over, a few weeks later I was to accompany Mr Sata to Chanyanya, to the south west of Kafue. I can’t remember exactly what the assignment was but I think it was to open a clinic or something to that effect. What moved and convinced me that Mr Sata was a man of the people is what he did during the meals that were prepared by the villagers.
Mr Sata washed his hands in the same bowls that everybody had washed and ate from the same plate as everybody. There was nothing like “iyi ni mbale yaba minister”—and this at the time when there were stories of how one aspiring MP used to go to campaign to his constituency carrying Hungry Lion take away and shunning food prepared by villagers he wanted to represent. That aspiring MP lost the elections, no doubt.
From all what is going on in the first few months of Mr Sata’s presidency, Zambians should be happy that the man is redefining the presidency. The office is not occupied by gods but by ordinary men (and women hopefully). I hope we will no longer have to kneel before the president or whisper his name when talking about his shortcomings.
The last four presidents have brought their own attributes to the presidency—Kaunda brought independence; Chiluba brought plural politics; Mwanawasa fought corruption; RB came to finish Mwanawasa’s projects; Sata is opening up the presidency!