Zambian president steps aside as 'King Cobra' takes reins

Zambia's newly-elected President Michael Sata (right) was sworn in on Friday.

Story highlights

  • The new president is nicknamed "King Cobra" for his fiery tongue
  • "I have no ill feeling in my heart ... I wish him well," Rupiah Banda says
  • Zambians applaud the outgoing president's concession
  • "I'm happy that democracy won," a Zambian says
Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata took office after the incumbent president tearfully conceded in a televised speech, a rare moment in African politics following a recent string of troubled elections.
Rupiah Banda acknowledged he had lost the election and urged his supporters to maintain peace.
"Now is not the time for violence and retribution," Banda said. "Now is the time to unite and build tomorrow's Zambia together."
He called on citizens to recognize Sata as the new president.
"I have no ill feeling in my heart, there is no malice in my words. I wish him well in his years as president," Banda said Friday, according to a statement on his party's website.
Zambians applauded the concession, relieved that it will ease transition following minor clashes this week as citizens demanded faster vote counting to curtail rigging.
"There is an atmosphere of peace now that the election is over," said Nanty Nkwachi, a resident of the second-largest city of Kitwe. "I'm OK with the outcome. Of course I'm disappointed that my candidate lost, but I'm happy that democracy won."
Zambia has remained relatively peaceful amid violence in nearby nations. Minor clashes flared up in major cities this week as residents demanded the release of the election results, but officials appealed for calm.
Recent elections in Africa, including in Nigeria and Ivory Coast, have descended into chaos. Ivory Coast required international mediators when the incumbent president defied calls to cede power after he lost the election.
"I hope other African nations can learn from Banda," said Mutheliso Phiri, 36 . "We are a young but mature democracy. My friends from Uganda and other places are sending me messages saying that we set a good example."
The new president, a veteran politician who narrowly lost to Banda in 2008, is nicknamed "King Cobra" for his fiery tongue. The major critic of Chinese investment in the nation's copper industry has especially targeted foreign companies that mistreat Zambian workers.
Last year, Chinese managers at a mine in the nation used shotguns to fire at unarmed workers protesting poor labor conditions. At least 11 miners were wounded, reviving an outcry against foreign employers.
Analysts said despite Sata's stance, the new leader will not jeopardize ties with his nation's major investor.
"A lot of the threats have been lip service to appease voters and show that he is tough," said Ayo Johnson, director of London-based Viewpoint Africa.
"Zambia needs the foreign exchange and the investments. It has a lot of young, poor but very educated youth with university degrees who feel disenfranchised and need the jobs the Chinese are providing."
Michelle Mulenga is one such youth. The 29-year-old Kitwe resident hopes the new president will keep his pledge to provide more jobs.
"We'll just have to wait and see," she said. "He's a hardworking man and has done a good job in his past positions."
Johnson said Chinese companies are "shrewd and diplomatic investors" and will ensure they accommodate the new government to tap into its resources and expand investments.
Banda became president three years ago after his predecessor died.
He has enjoyed popularity in the nation, but most young voters wanted him out to validate the fact that Zambia is a democracy, according to Phiri.
"His party (Movement for Multiparty Democracy) has been in power since 1991," he said. "A lot of people who voted were young ... they wanted change because they have not seen any other leadership."
Phiri said most youth today are becoming resentful of long-term rulers.
"He was almost like their Gadhafi -- this was their way of revolting against a party they felt has been in power for too long," Phiri said, referring to the ousted Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi.
U.S. President Barack Obama applauded the outgoing leader for promoting democracy and a peaceful transition.
The United States looks forward to working with the new president and building on the partnership between the two nations, Obama said in a statement.