LUSAKA, Zambia – Zambia's populist president portrays himself as a corruption-buster, but critics are raising questions about the appointments he's made, his conduct and the lucrative contracts he has awarded for government work in the year since taking office. President Michael Sata made his uncle his finance minister, appointed other relatives to other high government posts, and has picked a fight with the judiciary.
Despite his promises to be different, it looks like politics as usual in this copper-rich southern African country.
In Zambia and across Africa, multi-party contests and relatively peaceful elections are increasingly the norm. But governance often fails to meet voters' expectations, and entrenched parties can make a mockery of the trappings of democracy.
Power has changed hands in Zambia among a clique of politicians who jump from party to party as rivalries and allegiances shift. Politics is often more about personality than policy in this young democracy, with voters offered little more than a choice among strong men.
Sata was once a member of the late President Frederick Chiluba's Movement for Multiparty Democracy and served in Chiluba's Cabinet in the 1990s. Sata formed his own Patriotic Front party in 2001 after differing with Chiluba over party leadership, and lost to Levy Mwanawasa, the man Chiluba picked to succeed him, in 2001 and 2006 presidential elections. After Mwanawasa died in office in 2008, Sata lost a special election that year to Rupiah Banda, who had been Mwanawasa's vice president. Sata finally won in 2011, defeating Banda in September.
Sata, known as King Cobra because of his sharp tongue, won support at home and abroad with his anti-corruption, pro-poor rhetoric. He returned from a recent visit to Europe with a promise of private foreign investment in farming and a pledge from the British government of a three-year, 58 million pound grant to fight poverty.
"We are very impressed and encouraged by President Sata's personal and government commitment to fighting corruption," British Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell said. "We will continue to support Zambia's development activities, despite the recession in the eurozone."
But some Zambians are concerned about Sata's leadership, accusing him of nepotism and favoritism.
He appointed his uncle, Alexander Chikwanda, as minister of finance, and his nephew, Miles Sampa, as deputy finance minister. The local government minister is his niece, and cousins have been appointed ambassador to Japan and acting chief justice. Giving family members government jobs is something of a political tradition in Zambia. Under Mwanawasa, some dubbed government "the family tree."
Journalists from the Post newspaper, which supported Sata during his presidential campaign have gotten jobs in the president's office, the ministry of information and in several Zambian embassies. Zambians also say members of Sata's Bemba tribe and others from the Bemba northern stronghold are being favored by his government. Nevers Mumba, a prominent televangelist and opposition politician is, like Sata, a Bemba, and recently expressed concern over the perception of favoritism.
"It is important that this government respects the fact that wisdom, intelligence comes from all areas of the country," Mumba said.
The finance minister's company, Apollo Construction, was recently awarded a contract to renovate the presidential home, known as Nkwazi. Vice President Guy Scott told parliament last March the 642 million kwacha contract was awarded properly.
Sata also has been accused of undermining judicial independence. He has suspended two Supreme Court judges and one High Court judge who ruled against his ally, the Post newspaper, in a case involving a debt the newspaper and others owed.
Sata has accused the three judges of "professional misconduct" in the loan case and announced the appointment of a tribunal to investigate them.
In June, the president's office announced that Chief Justice Ernest Sakala had gone on leave pending the expiration of his contract in August. Sakala was replaced by Lombe Chibesakunda, a respected jurist who is a cousin of the president.
Last year, before Sata became president, Sakala in an apparent snub refused to shake hands with Sata when the two happened to be at the same Sunday Mass.
Sata has been quoted as complaining that judges "want to investigate others but they don't want to be investigated." Some Zambians share his view. Telesphore Mpundu, the Catholic archbishop of Lusaka, has accused judges of refusing to be held accountable.
"We should never, as a nation, be complacent," the archbishop said. "We need to quiz those serving us, including judicial officers."
The judiciary in Zambia has faced corruption allegations, with lower-ranking judges in particular accused of taking bribes to decide cases.
Hakainde Hichilema, leader of the main opposition United Party for National Development, has expressed concern about the independence of the judiciary, and about the state of democracy in general under Sata. But Zambians have reason to also be skeptical of claims by opposition members to be champions of democracy. Hakainde's UPND has not held internal elections for party leadership posts for almost a decade.