LUSAKA – Zambia’s vice president, Guy Scott, a white Zambian of Scottish descent, became the country’s acting president on Wednesday, making him the first white leader of a sub-Saharan African nation since F.W. de Klerk, the apartheid-era head of South Africa who was voted out of power in 1994.
The appointment of Guy Scott as Zambia’s acting president until elections are held within 90 days followed the death of President Michael Sata in a London hospital after a long illness.
Sata, once dubbed “Mr. King Cobra” for his sharp-tongued remarks, had largely dropped out of public view months ago as his health deteriorated. The government did not divulge details of his condition, but some Zambian media outlets said he suffered multiple organ failure.
Scott, 70, a former agriculture minister who has also worked in Zambia’s finance ministry, has said he has no presidential ambitions. The constitution in any case bars him from running for president because his parents were not Zambians by birth or descent.
“Elections for the office of president will take place within 90 days. In the interim, I am the acting president,” Scott said in a radio address. “The period of national mourning started today. We will miss our beloved president and commander.”
Defense minister Edgar Lungu, who also runs the justice ministry and is secretary general of the ruling Patriotic Front party, said it was a difficult period for Zambia and the party that Sata founded.
“The government remains intact and so does the PF as a party,” said Lungu, who served as acting president when Sata traveled to London for medical treatment earlier this month.
Sata died shortly after 11 p.m. on Tuesday at London’s King Edward VII hospital, where he was being treated, Cabinet secretary Roland Msiska said in a statement.
Sata’s wife, Christine Kaseba-Sata, and his son, Mulenga Sata, were at the 77-year-old president’s side when he died, Msiska said. Mulenga Sata is the mayor of the Zambian capital, Lusaka.
Zambia had already declared Wednesday to be a national day of mourning for 26 people, all but three of them schoolchildren, who died Oct. 24 when a crowded boat capsized on Lake Kariba, near the border with Zimbabwe.
The children were on their way to a ceremony marking Zambia’s 50th anniversary of independence from Britain. Sata was unable to preside over the national celebrations because he was in the London hospital.
Kenya, South Africa and other countries sent condolences to Zambia after Sata died. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Sata “played a commanding role in the public life of his country over three decades.”
Rumors that Sata was deathly ill had long gripped Zambia, and opposition groups had questioned whether Sata was fit to lead a country of 15 million people that has enjoyed robust economic growth but suffers widespread poverty.
On Sept. 19, Sata spoke at the opening of parliament in Lusaka, poking fun at speculation about his failing health, saying that he was still alive.
Following that appearance, Sata failed to give a scheduled address at the United Nations in New York and police said doctors treated him in a hotel room.
Earlier this year, Sata traveled to Israel amid speculation he was seeking medical treatment. On Oct. 20, Zambia said Sata had left for a “medical check-up abroad.”
Sata had a volatile relationship with Chinese investors in Zambian mines and other infrastructure, criticizing them as exploitative but toning down his rhetoric after taking office.
Some critics say Sata became increasingly intolerant as president. An opposition leader, Frank Bwalya, was acquitted this year of defamation charges after he compared Sata to a local potato whose name is slang for someone who doesn’t listen.
As an opposition leader, Sata lost three presidential votes, breaking the jinx to become Zambia’s fifth president in 2011. He also served in previous governments, and was a member of every major party.
Sata was born in Mpika in what was then northern Rhodesia, and worked as a police officer and trade unionist under colonial rule. He also trained as a pilot in Russia.
After independence in 1964, he joined Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independent Party, becoming governor of Lusaka, a city as well as a province, in 1985.
He resigned from Kaunda’s party in 1991 and joined the newly formed Movement for Multiparty Democracy, later serving as a party lawmaker for 10 years and as minister for local government, labor and social security, and health.
In 2001, he left to form his Patriotic Front party. In 2008, he suffered a stroke and went to South Africa for treatment. The same year, President Levy Mwanawasa died following a stroke and a special election held later saw Sata narrowly lose to Rupiah Banda, who had been Mwanawasa’s vice president.
Sata’s wife is a medical doctor and the couple had eight children.
Sata introduced Kaseba-Sata at the opening of parliament last month, crediting her with tough love.
“She has made me stay up to now,” he said. “I haven’t died yet.”