By Field Ruwe
The room itself, the venue of world leaders, was full of expectation. The voice of the female interpreter sounded:
“On behalf of the General Council, I have the honor to welcome His Excellency Mr. Michael Chilufya Sata, president of the Republic of Zambia, and invite him to address the assembly.”
The audience applauded, some nervously as the 75-year-old Sata, dressed in a gray suit, walked to the podium. He was among the more than 120 presidents, prime ministers and monarchs gathered at the United Nations Headquarters for the annual General Assembly.
It was the sixth day before the official opening.
His eyes downcast, he glanced at his speech and flipped the cover page.
“Your Excellency,” he began in his non-sonorous voice.
It was his maiden speech to the world.
African leaders in the assembly hall held their breath. They had come to know him as a man prone to surprises, controversy and one short on diplomacy.
At the AU and SADC he had been as callous, grouchy, and browbeating as Gaddafi. He would get up and say anything that came to mind, no matter how outrageous or deprecating. Some leaders had begun to take offence and distance themselves from him.
Others had begun to look at him as a mere clown, not to be taken seriously. Those who had previously played host in their countries remembered how he had left them humiliated before their own people.
“What now?” they seemed to ask.
Some Zambians were just as uneasy. They were hoping he does not deviate from his prescribed words and start to sound like “the bad boys of the UN,” Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Muammar Gaddafi (deceased).
These three leaders, by sheer power of their absurdity, seemed to echo the same banalities one after another at the U.N., often creating drama. The West sees them as mad men, monsters and megalomaniacs who come to the UN to spurt paranoid theories and repulsive affronts.
Last time Gaddafi was on the podium he criticized the UN for denying African countries permanent seats on the Security Council.
“The preamble in this book says that nations are equal whether they are small or big,” he said, holding the UN Charter in his hands. “Are we equal in the permanent seats? No. We’re not equals.
“Do we have rights of veto? No. So, the veto is against the Charter. The permanent seats are against the Charter. We do not accept it and we do not acknowledge it, neither do we recognize it.”
He ripped the Charter and tossed the pieces in the air right before his audience.
This year Gaddafi was not around to create another spectacle. But the man who said “Israel must be wiped off the map,” Ahmadinejad was. Each year the Iranian leader stokes the rage of the U.S. and its allies by calling them imperialists. They in turn call him a deranged and dangerous individual.
Ahmadinejad had just spoken, but his mockery fell flat. The audience was tired of his insipid platitudes. Many, especially journalists, were craving for drama, something in the lines of “the UN doesn’t smell like sulfur anymore,” remarks made by George Bush’s adversary Chavez in 2009 after the election of Barack Obama.
Before that, in 2006, Chavez spoke in the assembly hall and said that the podium “still smells of sulfur.”
“The devil came yesterday,” Chavez said boldly and made the sign of the cross.
He was referring to Bush who had addressed the assembly the previous day.
“He came here talking as if he were the owner of the world.”
That’s what the audience was missing. Chavez had not showed up this time around. He was recovering from cancer and campaigning for re-election.
Now some spectators were hoping the caustic Zambian leader would be Chavez’s substitute. They had heard about him. They knew him as King Cobra—the Zambian, plucky, venomous politician with a forked tongue and a TNT temper.
They knew that since he became president he had lost none of his bite. They heard how he labeled George W. Bush a “colonial bandit” who stole Africa’s resources.
“I mean, as far as you are concerned Africa doesn’t exist,” he quipped when the two met at State House. “And when we have a former colonialist like you coming to pay back what you took out of this country we are grateful.”
Whether said jokingly or not, King Cobra had struck and left Bush wounded and the US State Department stunned. Previously, he had spat in the eyes of the British for imposing sanctions on Zimbabwe.
“Mugabe hasn’t done anything wrong,” he said back in 2009. “It is the imperialists, the capitalist roaders who say he is a villain.”
Sata had hinted at that time that if elected president, he would stand up to the West. True to his word he has become an anti-imperialist, leftist leader who would rather be a “Mugabe stooge” than a “Western stooge,” the title he bestowed on Zimbabwean Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai.
Sata’s personal friendship and open support for Robert Mugabe is a sign of where he is taking us as a nation. Mugabe is a friend of Venezuelan Chavez, Iranian Ahmadinejad, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, North Korean King Jong Un, and former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and his brother and current leader Raul. Each of the aforementioned has tenuous relations with the West.
With very little understanding of the histories, economies, politics, and policies of the East and the West, Sata has chosen the East. He is on the side of Mugabe and his allies, and he has taken us with him. We are part of the modern “Eastern bloc.”
Sadly, “Eastern” leaders possess certain similarities. They look at themselves as supermen and demigods, some with excessive grandiosity and aberrant thinking.
It is true they want to forever rule. They are highly authoritarian, despotic, and develop an extraordinary trend for veneration. Many acquire absolute power and become omniscient and omnipotent.
They personalize political power and make decisions without consultation. They think “whatever I do cannot be contested.” As a result, they show paranoid hostility against those who oppose them and muzzle the media.
This certainly fits the image of Sata who has no sense of the inappropriateness of his actions and attitude. He can do and say whatever he wants. He can get up and go anywhere on personal or “business” trips using government resources without informing the Zambian people.
Currently, Sata is flying around doing the job of his cabinet ministers because he sees himself as heroic and wants us to see him as a hero, that way he will eternalize his glory.
He has no confidence in the energetic Given Lubinda, Bob Sichinga, Miles Sampa, Kennedy Sakeni, Fackson Shamenda, and Sylvia Masebo. He would rather take them around with him as “Robot Men.” In his presence they become obedient pedants who can only whisper and not speak. Such are dictatorial patterns that shape “Eastern” behavior.
Anyway, back to the UN. Sata was approaching the end of his speech.
“Since the League of Nations up to today, Africa is more of a spectator than a participant.”
The audience brightened. They knew he had lit the match and was about to set the building ablaze. Journalists put their pens at the ready.
“We have no permanent members in the Security Council and yet we represent 54 members in this House…
“We cannot talk of rule of law when we are not respecting each other. Therefore, all Africans must stand up and be counted. We must become permanent members of the Security Council. Thank you.”
Yes, he was done. Some in the crowd were disappointed. Because Sata was an “Eastern” leader—a capricious, volatile, and erratic one, the audience had expected him to launch a “Chavez” tirade and say something ridiculous like “the UN must create two seats, one for Robert Gabriel Mugabe, and another for me.” Instead, they found the speech flat for a man never short of brimstone and fire. It lacked the natural flow, rhythm, phrasing, and stressing. At times he had problems in pronouncing some of the words.
It is true. Sata is a rhetorical virtuoso when he is not fighting unfamiliar words. Off the cuff he speaks his own language in colloquial or pidgin English, and it is powerful and spellbinding. The voice is all he has. With it he is able to reach the disfranchised and touch them. That’s how he dribbled and won the hearts of the kaponyas with his 90-day-get-rich mantra.
Also, his ability to silence his critics by word of mouth is unique and remarkable. He has silenced us. We are beginning to witness a slow boil of “Eastern” power. Sata is already painting a gloomy picture of democracy. He has stifled the opposition and is engaged in discriminatory policies that have undercut freedom of the press and expression. Nepotism and corruption are rearing their ugly heads. Worse still, the judiciary is quickly becoming a rubber stamp.
If president Sata, who at the moment is seated comfortably in power, becomes an “Eastern” dictator like Mugabe, it will be because of our naiveté; our blind loyalty; our false patriotism; and our greed. During his one or two terms, let’s ensure he leads us well.
Field Ruwe is a US-based Zambian media practitioner, historian, and author. He is a PhD candidate at George Fox University and serves as an adjunct professor (lecturer) in Boston. ©Ruwe2012