File picture of Zambia's Vice President Guy Scott at the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington
By Chris Mfula
LUSAKA (Reuters) - Zambia's Guy Scott became Africa's first white head of state in 20 years on Wednesday after the president, "King Cobra" Michael Sata, died in a London hospital aged 77.
Scott, a Cambridge-educated economist born in Zambia to Scottish parents, had been Sata's vice president. He will be interim leader until an election in three months, making him the first white African leader since South Africa's F.W. de Klerk lost to Nelson Mandela in the 1994 election that ended apartheid.
Scott, 70, is ineligible to run in a presidential election because his parents were not born in Zambia, leaving defense minister Edgar Lungu and finance minister Alexander Chikwanda the most likely contenders for the ruling Patriotic Front party's ticket, analysts say.
"Elections for the office of president will take place within 90 days. In the interim I am acting president," Scott said in a brief televised address. "The period of national mourning will start today. We will miss our beloved president and comrade."
Many Zambians welcomed his interim appointment.
Scott is a lively character who has caused diplomatic controversy in the past, describing South Africans as "backward" in an interview with Britain's Guardian newspaper last year. "I like a lot of South Africans but they really think they're the bees' knees and actually they've been the cause of so much trouble in this part of the world," he said.
"He is a black man in a white man’s skin," said Nathan Phiri, a bus driver. "The very fact we accepted him as vice-president shows that we consider him as one of us."
Sata, who was nicknamed "King Cobra" because of his sharp tongue, died on Tuesday, the government said earlier. He had been president of Zambia, Africa's second-largest copper producer, since 2011.
The cause of death was not immediately disclosed, but Sata had been ill for some time. He was at London's King Edward VII hospital when he died, the website Zambian Watchdog reported.
"As you are aware, the president was receiving medical attention in London," cabinet secretary Roland Msiska announced on state television. "The head of state passed away on October 28. President Sata's demise is deeply regretted."
Sata, whose populist platform included defending workers' rights, was often fiercely critical of the foreign mining companies operating in Zambia's copper belt, rattling investors.
A year ago, he threatened to remove the mining license of Konkola Copper mines , Zambia's biggest private employer, because of plans to lay off 1,500 workers. During the row, the company's foreign chief executive had his work permit revoked.
South African consultancy ETM said Sata was "a divisive figure" whose "increasingly authoritarian and ad hoc policy measures against the crucial mining sector" had hampered investment in Zambia in recent years. "The president's passing could make way for a more reformist administration and help to remove broader policy uncertainties," it added.
Sata, whose varied CV included stints as a policeman, car assembly worker, trade unionist and platform sweeper at London's Victoria station, had left Zambia on Oct. 19 for medical treatment, accompanied by his wife and family members.
Defense Minister Lungu, secretary general of Sata's Patriotic Front party, had to lead celebrations last week of the 50th anniversary of Zambia's independence from Britain.
Concern over Sata's health had been mounting since June, when he disappeared from the public eye without explanation and was then reported to be receiving medical treatment in Israel.
He missed a scheduled speech at the U.N. General Assembly in September amid reports that he had fallen ill in his New York hotel. A few days before that, he had attended the opening of parliament in Lusaka, joking: "I am not dead."
It was a typically no-nonsense denial from a politician not known for diplomatic niceties.
"I haven't bloody lost so don't waste my time," he barked at a BBC reporter in 2008 after results showed he had indeed lost an election to his main rival, Rupiah Banda, by a narrow margin.
His nationalist, anti-Chinese rhetoric finally helped him oust Banda in a 2011 election.
The Zambian kwacha fell 2 percent against the dollar after Sata's death was announced. Traders said it was unlikely to suffer any prolonged weakness because of the underlying health of an economy expected to grow 7 percent this year.
The central bank said in a statement it was ready to provide support to the market, adding it had seen some "uncertainties" reflected in foreign exchange trade.
"Obviously, there will be a sentimental temptation to go long on dollars, but I'm also quite confident the central bank will do everything it can to protect the currency," one Lusaka-based trader said. "In terms of the economy, everything should still be on track."
(Writing by Ed Cropley and Joe Brock; Editing by Catherine Evans)