The Michael Sata I Knew: From A Reporter’s Perspective

The Michael Sata I Knew: From A Reporter’s Perspective

I first came to learn of Michael Sata from his several mentions on ZNBC radio when i was growing up in Nangoma area of Mumbwa District in central Zambia during the 1990s. During those typical Mumbwa-Mumbwa days, radio was more prominent in the villages as it was the most affordable source of news because newspapers, the internet and TVs were a luxury.

I never knew what position Mr Sata held in the Frederick Chiluba-led government at the time but his was a prominent name on state media, which was the main source of information. My first opportunity to see Mr Sata was somewhere between 1993 and 1994 when President Chiluba came to my village to tour the Catholic-run Nangoma Mission Hospital.It was my second time to see the presidency in my village and it was somehow strange as it wasn’t election time, the time most politicians become visible in the communities.

Earlier in 1990, President Kenneth Kaunda became the first head of state to visit my village. While on his road trip to Mongu, Dr. Kaunda made a stop-over at Lubanze village and spent a few minutes at Kasalu Basic School where I was doing Grade 1. My father Mr. Namasiku Kamuti Shalala, who was the school headmaster, received the head of state as we the pupils did the usual chisokone salute while lined up along the Lusaka-Mongu road.

Fast forward to 1993-1994, Dr. Chiluba came with dozens of vehicles and my fellow villagers were excited to have found something to entertain themselves with for a while. In Chiluba’s entourage, I saw this well built man who stood so close to the eloquent head of state and he was quiet and attentive to whatever the president was saying, nodding his heard from side to side as Dr. Chiluba spoke.

When I looked closer, it was the King Cobra himself, Michael Sata, the man who would one day rule Zambia for three years and a month, a presidential term cut short by his death in office. After that event in Nangoma, ten years passed and I never saw the King Cobra again until 2006. In that year, I covered one of his rallies in Mandevu area of Lusaka during the campaigns which preceded the 2006 general elections.

At the time, I was a student reporter at the college-run Hone FM radio. In 2006, Mr Sata was a firebrand opposition leader who spat venom on the Levy Mwanawasa-led New Deal government which he did not spare with every opportunity he had to address the people of Zambia.

The following year, I did my industrial attachments for three months at the Zambia Daily Mail. During my time at the Longolongo road-based broadsheet, I covered a press briefing by Operation Young Vote President, Guess Nyirenda who issued a statement on Mr Sata and I was forced to get the Cobra’s side of the story.

With fear in my body, I peacefully picked up the phone and rung Mr Sata who answered me politely and even gave his side of the story without hesitation. From then on, I kept calling him for stories for the rest of his years in the opposition.

After college, I spent two years at the New Vision Newspaper where I covered Mr Sata several times. Being a newspaper, we used to get stories from the Cobra on the phone without really bothering to interview him face to face. When phoning him, I would go like: “Mr President, this is Paul Shalala from the New Vision Newspaper, am asking for a phone interview with you sir………..”

He would answer: “Go ahead Mr New Vision with your questions……………….”

It was always a great experience to speak to him on phone.

When I worked at Muvi Television from 2010 to 2012, I had several close encounters and one on one interviews with the Cobra that still reminds me of a man who gave stories to reporters as and when they needed them. In May 2011, my employer then, Muvi Television assigned me to cover Mr Sata when he traveled to Western Province to hold rallies in Mongu and Senanga.

We traveled with the Cobra’s advance party, arrived in Mongu on a Friday evening, a day before the Cobra’s arrival, who landed the following morning on a chartered aircraft. He was in his usual populist style: wearing the traditional Lozi siziba which charmed hundreds of Mongu residents who welcomed him at the airport.

Mr Sata went straightaway to the Blue Gums Ground where he addressed a huge rally and tore down the Rupiah Banda-led MMD administration which he accused of having killed innocent people during the January 14, 2011 Mongu riots.

Sata was a populist and typical of him,  he read people’s mood and spoke only what they wanted to hear.

The following morning on Sunday, while Mr. Sata was attending mass at a Catholic Church in the neighbouring town of Senanga,  sat a seat behind him in the church and listened attentively and watched how Catholics conduct their services. As mass went on, i just saw the Cobra extend his hand to me and he gave me a folded paper which I quickly read and made me smile for a few minutes.

On that paper, the opposition leader wrote:

“Thank you very much Mr MUVI TV. People in Lusaka have told me that the story you sent on yesterday’s rally in Mongu was aired on MUVI TV. Good job.”

At first, I was shocked that the venomous Cobra could write a personal note to me. To this day, I regret having lost that paper. I wish I had kept it as a souvenir for my children and their children to read in future.

After the church service, Mr Sata went to a lodge to rest as he waited for his public rally in the riverside town of Senanga that afternoon. As was his habit, the Cobra started reading newspapers to update himself with what was going on around the world.

With my colleague, Justine Kawisha who was then working at Radio Mazabuka, we saw Mr Sata’s free time as a photo opportunity. We approached him and asked to take pictures with him and the Cobra shockingly agreed. We stood behind him and asked someone to take photos. That person (I cant remember the name) took three photos which to this day are the only photos I have with Mr. Sata (Check photo above).

When the time for the rally came, we went to a ground where Mr Sata addressed the people of Senanga who came in their hundreds. It was at that Senanga rally that Mr Sata issued the famous 90 days promise to produce a new constitution and restore the Barotseland Agreement of 1964. You can watch my report on Mr Sata’s rallies in Mongu and Senanga here

In September 2011 when presidential candidates while filing their nominations at the Supreme Court ahead of the 20 September general elections, Muvi TV assigned me to cover all the candidates and I spent the whole week camped at the venue.

When the day for the Cobra’s turn came, there was confusion as hundreds, if not thousands, of Patriotic Front cadres thronged the Supreme Court grounds to see Mr Sata file in his papers. I recall in my TV report which aired on Muvi TV that evening, I showed a confrontation between PF cadres and Zambia Police Director of Operations Dr. Solomon Jere.

I also remember showing Supreme Court staff peeping through the windows, trying to catch a glimpse of the Cobra who was driven to the Supreme Court in a Toyota GX vehicle and escorted by a huge boat. My TV report for that day can be watched here.

After winning the September 20, 2011 with 43% of the vote, Mr Sata soon became a national asset whose access to reporters became scarce. I covered him on a number of occasions at State House and during campaign rallies in the numerous parliamentary by-elections.

On June 2, 2014 while I covered the head of state at State House,  he jokingly said he had not been evacuated abroad for medical attention as was alleged by some sections of the online media. My story on that State House event can be read through this link.

The last time I saw the King Cobra in person was on 19th September, 2014 when he went to Parliament Grounds and opened the first meeting of the fourth session of the eleventh National Assembly. The head of state in his usual humorous mood, opened the house and punctuated his speech with jokes.

On that day, I sat upstairs in the press gallery not knowing that I was seeing Zambia’s fifth republican president for the last time. King Cobra died on 28th October, 2014 while receiving medical attention in the British capital London.

When my close friend Boston Chambuluka phoned me from Kafue at around 03:00hrs on 29th October, 2014 to break the bad news of the demise of the President, I remembered the King Cobra who I had a few chats with in the opposition and who later became the head of state thanks to his populist style of politics which easily wooed him votes.

If someone was to ask me to describe the late Zambian President Michael Chilufya Sata in a few words from a reporters’ perspective, I would describe him as a news source who needed no research to give out a news story at any given  time.

What a loss to us the so-called amutola nkani. Our source is gone…. gone forever.

Paul Shalala
Paul Shalala
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