In New Sub-Saharan Leader, Hints of an African Spring

Newly elected Zambian President Michael Sata is bringing populism and technocratic management to a part of the world that rarely sees either but badly needs both

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Supporters of Zambian opposition party leader Sata carry his posters outside the Supreme Court of Zambia / Reuters

Global political pundits are waiting in vain for an "African spring," in which the forces of mass, grassroots democracy course through sub-Saharan Africa, a region arguably in as much need of genuine political reform and civic participation as the Arab world. Ever since the North African countries of Tunisia and Egypt exploded in protest, observers of sub-Saharan politics have observed with envy the seemingly revolutionary activities taking place in the north of the continent.

The Democracy ReportWhile the Arab Spring may be moving to another season altogether -- with Syria's violence and Egypt's drift -- the point remains that what's commonly called "black Africa" deserves a prolonged encounter with the sort of extreme-makeover politics that has upended long-term tyrannies in the Arab world. There are plenty of entrenched presidents in sub-Saharan Africa that could give good impersonations of recently deposed Arab dictators. Zimbabawe's Robert Mugabe is surely a match for Libya's Qaddafi in terms of stubborn self-destruction and bizarre narcissism. Cameroon's Paul Biya, who has so rarely actually governed during his 30 years in power that he sports the nickname "the ghost of Africa," could give Mubarak a decent competition in the realm of complacency and corruption. Uganda's Yoweri Museveni is no less the wily autocrat the Yemen's embattled Ali Abdullah Saleh. And yet none of these African autocrats seem threatened by dissent in their own countries. Nor do a passel of other African presidents -- the heads of Congo, Togo and Gabon, for instance -- whose positions and power flow directly from their own deceased fathers.

Despite the paucity of protest indicators in black Africa, the region has seen important, quiet victories by democrats and progressives. The latest shy triumph came this past week in Zambia, where a sitting president was defeated by an opposition party leader. If that's not impressive enough, it was the second time in a decade that a Zambian president lost power through peaceful, democratic elections. Such orderly changes in power are a hallmark of maturing democracies, and in Zambia, an economic powerhouse in southern Africa, there are other reasons to rejoice as well.

A former British colony once called "Northern Rhodesia," Zambia is copper-rich country that has long been among the most urbanized in black Africa. Recently, according to The World Bank, Zambia's economy "graduated" from the ranks of the poorest countries into the "middle-income" category. Large cities in Africa have often incubated opposition politics; in Lusaka, Zambia's capital, this has been especially true, as Danielle Resnick, an American scholar based in a United Nations university in Helsinki, observes in a perceptive new article in the Journal of Modern African Studies.

"[Sata] is probably the most effective all-round executive that Africa has ever seen holding the office of president"

"Urban centers have frequently represented the locus of political contention and change in sub-Saharan Africa," Resnick writes. But transforming urban dissent into meaningful political transformation has been difficult in the region. That makes Zambia's multiple peaceful transfers of presidential power even more striking. And in the latest case -- the election of longtime opposition leader Michael Sata to Zambia's presidency -- the outlines of new African populism are clearly visible.

In understanding the significance of Sata's victory -- and emergence on the world's political stage -- I rely heavily on the insights assembled by my dear colleague in Lusaka, Chanda Chisala, a former fellow at the Hoover Institution and the editor and founder of Zambia Online, one of the most important digital publications in the sub-Saharan. A longtime resident of Lusaka, Chisala has watched Sata closely for decades, and has in the past been a strident critic of the new president. Yet as Sata has grown so has Chisala's view of him. In an essay published immediately after Sata's victory last week, Chisala identified two of Sata's traits -- his effective management skills and his genuine populism -- as setting him apart for most African presidents.

Sata is indeed both hands-on and a man of the people. He formed his own opposition party after some successful turns as a government minister where he gained a reputation -- almost unheard of in African politics -- for getting things done, and quickly. Chisala, whom I first met in Lusaka several year ago, considers Sata a pragmatic radical who literally cleaned up Lusaka, completed complex housing projects, and even got the right roads built on time and on budget. "I have no doubt," writes Chisala, that Sata "is probably the most effective all-round executive that Africa has ever seen holding the office of president."

Presented by

G. Pascal Zachary is a professor of practice in the Cronkite School of Journalism, and the Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes, at Arizona State University. He is the author of Hotel Africa: The Politics of Escape and Married to Africa: A Love Story.

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