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President Sata.

Michael Sata brought to life in new book

Title: Michael Sata: Portrait of a Populist
Author: Reginald Ntomba
Pages: 196
Publisher: Gadsden Publishers

A NEW book written by Zambian journalist Reginald Ntomba, titled Michael Sata, Portrait of a Populist presents the life and times of Zambia’s fifth president as an enigmatic story of a man whose rise to the presidency was as thought-provoking as what he did with power once he had gained it, having primed himself for the highest office in the land for decades. Ntomba lays bare the workings of the duality of life – the perennial battle between good and evil – active in all humans – presenting itself as two sides of a man who was both a friend and foe or cult hero and villain depending on who was looking at the former president. By following Sata’s relatives, former school mates, former workmates, political supporters and rivals, Ntomba lets the microcosm of Sata’s social and political life reveal the macrocosm in which many Zambians saw him. He is depicted as a man who was at his best when helping people, fixing broken institutions and infrastructure and; at his worst when rolling through and defending his turf in a thicket overgrown with political rivals. In this nearly 200 – page factual account we encounter Sata in three phases. First, there is a hazy childhood whose details remain scanty. The writer tells us despite Sata’s magnetic, elephant-like memory coupled with his oratory prowess, the former president missed a great opportunity to endear himself in the lives of Zambians and the greater world because he said very little about his childhood. This is in stark contrast with the way leaders like Barack Obama seized the opportunity to do so during the 2004 Democractic National Congress. However, in narratives and anecdotes collected by the author from former school mates, friends and relatives of Michael Sata, the teenager Michael Sata is said to have been ambitious, a clean freak, an aggressive village boy carrying the weight of a large extended family deep into the last days of his life. He is denied an opportunity to become a priest for reasons ranging from personal pride to aggression. The writer makes it clear that some of these stories were told from failing memories since some of the interviewees were quite advanced in age or some of the people spoke out of partiality because of their blood connections with the former president. Second as a rising politician, we meet a rare species of man who is an outlier in the class of men who have been presidents of this country because he is the only one to have set his sights on the presidency from his early years in politics and ended up being president without the benevolence of an incumbent president, founder of a political party or accident of fate. His road to political prominence is rough and rugged but despite the bruises and severe blows he is dealt by a brutal political system (for instance he was rejected as a candidate for Kabwata Constituency in 1978) he soldiers on, purely carried by a deep-seated presidential ambition, hubris and massive ego. Despite a glittering trail of achievements during his time as governor of Lusaka and minister of local government in which he had acquired the moniker “man of action” having transformed the University Teaching Hospital, built fly-overs and the controversial Merzaf houses, the UNIP politburo, including Zambia’s first president Kenneth Kaunda, saw Sata as unsuitable for the presidency. Relentlessly, and against all odds he starts a decade-long personal project called the Patriotic Front which catapults him to the echelons of national leadership. In the last phase of Sata’s life, we meet a man living his life-long dream of serving the poor, building infrastructure albeit in a haphazard manner. He is largely untamable, given to impulses, gruffness, vulgarity and rush decisions created by his massive ego.
He is oblivious to the fundamentals of governance – destroying the tools that lifted him to the presidency (the media and civil society) clamping down on opponents and closing civic spaces. Recounting Sata’s campaign methods and tactics from 2001to 2011, the writer classifies Michael Sata as a populist leader in the same class as the proverbial Julius Caesar of the Roman Empire, the loquacious Donald Trump of the USA, the controversial Jair Bosanaro of Brazil, India’s Narenda Modi, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro, Indonesia’s Joko Widodo and the lethal Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. The forces that have ushered such leaders to the presidency, shared between Sata and the host of leaders above, have included but have not been limited to the existence of massive poverty among the electorate, rising inequalities, fatigue with the status quo, a failing world economic order that has produced a small rich elite and masses of poor people coupled with the proliferation of information communication technologies. Even though in history it might be too early to make a fair judgment on Michael Sata’s reign because it has only been seven years since his demise, Ntomba puts out the jury on what stands out in the former president’s time in power. He is fair to the facts, first, next to the subject and finally to the memory of the nation. While delivering a stinging verdict on the presidency of Michael Sata, Ntomba does many things right in this book which are in line with the principles of argumentation A careful reader will notice that the writer makes it clear that time had not been kind to Zambia’s fifth president because three years was such a short time for a president to roll out and achieve his vision but the mistakes of both omission and commission made by the former president do not go unnoticed. He makes it clear that Sata scored some successes which were carried on by his predecessor like construction of roads, hospitals, schools and the improvement of social security for the poorest of Zambia through the social cash transfer scheme. To make it clear why Sata and his Patriotic Front descended into a regional party with a semblance of national representation and made the mistakes that happened, the writer puts in context how contemporary Zambian politics was shaped by a history of regional nationalism. He couples how Simon Mwansa Kapwepwe, former vice president of Zambia, left the UNIP government in 1971 to form the United Progressive Party (UPP) – a party that was seen as a representation of Northern Province nationalism. Political analysts see the PF as a coalition of the wounded, a reincarnation of the UPP. The reader may be left wondering why the author does not attempt to trace the roots of the United Party for National Development (UPND) to Harry Nkumbula’s southern province nationalism embodied in the Zambia African National Congress, but it should suffice to say the writer makes a strong conclusion about the impact of this history on posterity: Zambia should critically look at the effect of this history on the future. Even though the writer was never an insider in the institution of the presidency of Michael Sata, his narrative and conclusions are based on testimonies given by people who were Sata’s childhood friends, politically solid colleagues of Michael Sata like Andrew Sardanis, relatives like former minister Sylvia Chalikosa, confidants like Guy Scott, Wynter Kabimba and lots of archival materials. On the basis of this Ntomba’s conclusion that Sata’s vacillation on lots of promises he had made like respecting media freedom, enacting a people’s constitution, rolling out decentralisation, expanding the civic space were consistent with his admiration for leaders like Robert Mugabe and his ZANU –PF which shared more than a name with Zambia’s PF, and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. This was coupled with Sata’s own personality of “being his own man to the exclusion of the feelings of others.
The writer’s conclusion that Sata’s time in office as Zambia’s president was a huge failure whose impacts (or mistakes and misdeeds) on the country will far outlive him for decades will pump adrenalin into Sata’s supporters and those who benefited from his reign but sobriety is advised. Even though this book is on the way to becoming a classic in Zambia’s biography, the writer could have been more aware that its readers will be people from all over the world seeking to understand Zambia’s history therefore no assumption should be made that the reader will know some of the most important paces and names of people in the book without qualification, hence the need to be deliberate about defining for the reader each and every place and name used in the book. Michael Sata, Portrait of a Populist is a go-to book about the presidency of Michael Sata and the global context in which his presidency happened. It is a book that those who are serious about being partners in Zambia’s development and those seeking to set standards higher for Zambia’s development must read and keep as a reference book. Daniel Sikazwe is a Zambian journalist with a specialisation in literary expression as freedom of expression.