Zambia's 'King Cobra' dies; white vice president takes charge

Lusaka (AFP) - Zambian Vice President Guy Scott Wednesday became Africa's first white leader in more than two decades after being named interim president following the death of Michael Sata in London.

The 77-year-old Sata, nicknamed "King Cobra" for his sharp rhetoric, died Tuesday while undergoing treatment for an unspecified illness in London's King Edward VII hospital.

Officials had long denied Sata was sick, even prosecuting journalists who questioned his long "working vacations" to Israel and elsewhere.

Some Zambians responded to the news by asking why he died in an upscale foreign hospital and expressed anger over government secrecy, including claims he was going to London for a check-up.

"They were cheating," said Mundia Akapelwa, a young mother visiting Lusaka's Soweto market.

"They knew well that he was going to seek medical attention. You can hide sickness but you can't hide death. Now the whole world knows that the man has died in hospital."

In the hours following Sata's demise it was unclear who would lead the country, or his Patriotic Front party, which has been accused of creeping authoritarianism.

Sata had named Defence Minister Edgar Lungu as acting president before he left for Britain, despite doubts about the constitutionality of that move.

But it later emerged that Sata's deputy Scott, 70, will take the reins until elections are held within 90 days.

Scott -- whose parents came from Scotland -- becomes the first white president of an African nation since FW de Klerk ruled apartheid South Africa more than 20 years ago until 1994.

But he is not eligible to stand in upcoming elections, thanks to a constitutional rule barring presidential candidates whose parents were born outside Zambia, a former British colony.

In an address to the nation Scott vowed to uphold the constitution and announced a period of mourning.

"We will miss our beloved president and comrade," he said.

- Station cleaner to president -

Sata was elected in 2011 to preside over his landlocked, southern African nation of 15 million people.

It was a triumphant post for a man who rose from sweeping London railway stations, through to being a policeman and trade unionist.

Once in power, though, he proved to be an authoritarian populist who inveighed against political foes, the media and sometimes even allies, earning him his snakey sobriquet.

His admirers saw him more as a no-nonsense man of action.

Sata had not been seen in public since returning from the UN General Assembly last month, where he failed to make a scheduled speech.

Even before Sata's death, analysts had said a power struggle for Zambia's top job was already well under way within the Patriotic Front.

They now face a divisive primary battle, before a possible general election challenge from former president Rupiah Banda, who is facing graft charges, has hinted at a possible return to active politics.

"I am legally eligible to stand," he told AFP early this month, citing calls from his supporters to return to the political fray.

- Tributes to Sata -

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Sata "played a commanding role in the public life of his country over three decades."

African leaders also paid rich tributes.

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta hailed him as an "outstanding son of Africa".

"He was gifted with unique, admirable abilities and strong values," Kenyatta said in a statement.

While paying tribute, the United States welcomed the appointment of Scott as the interim president, calling for a peaceful political transition.

"We anticipate a peaceful and constitutional transition," said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.

In London, the British flag over the parliament building was lowered to half-mast, a convention to mark the death of a Commonwealth leader.

Commonwealth Secretary General Kamalesh Sharma said he was struck by Sata's commitment to improving the lives of his countrymen.

South Africa's ruling ANC party said: "Zambia has lost not only a president who prioritised the poor, but also led the Zambian government at a time when the continent is working to reclaim its place in the global governance and economy."

Sata rode to power on the back of resentment against the Chinese resource firms that dot Zambia, describing them as "infesters".

His government had recently cracked down on political opponents and critical journalists who reported on his long-suspected illness and frequent "working trips" abroad, apparently for medical treatment.