Zambia’s government has always insisted the president Michael Sata is in good health, despite months of rumours and some evidence to the contrary.
He was taken to hospital in Israel in June when Zambia’s government maintained a stoney silence. In September he was treated by doctors while in New York where he missed his speech to the UN General Assembly.
The government denied his ill-health again but New York’s finest confirmed he was treated in his hotel room. At Sata’s only public appearance since then (the opening of parliament) he appeared frail and said “I’m not dead”. But it’s obvious to Zambians that he isn’t fit either.
A level of transparency has been added to the situation now. But the government was forced into it by the fact that Friday marks 50 years of independence for Zambia.
Such an occasion deserves a celebration the head of state would normally preside over, an event he wouldn’t miss.
Yet his health has deteriorated to the point where, on Sunday, he was flown out of the country – something the government had to admit the following day.
But that’s where the transparency ends. Since then there hasn’t been any word on how he is doing, nor where he is. Leading to endless speculation.
Everyone I’ve asked wishes Sata well.
Opposition politician Cornelius Mweetwa told me that he has to get better because the UPND wants to compete against him in the 2016 election. Mweetwa wants the opportunity to challenge Sata on his record in government.
One he alleges has become increasingly repressive of opposition voices. Yet on Thursday, on the eve of the Golden Jubilee, another surprise.
The government released the final draft constitution. Sata promised a new one within 90 days of coming to power, that was in 2011.
It’s taken almost constant pressure from civil society and youth groups and opposition parties to get to this point. It was a well-timed move that could mean welcome changes for many Zambians, yet it hasn’t distracted from the focus on Sata’s health – if that was the intention.
His speech was read to those gathered for a gala dinner but it made no mention of his absence creating a strange impression of a nation with a presidential office where clearly there’s something going on, but it’s very unclear exactly what.