Zambian President Michael Sata dies at 77

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(CNN) — Zambian President Michael Sata, who was nicknamed “King Cobra” for his fiery comebacks and larger-than-life personality, has died. He was 77.

Officials did not disclose a cause of death. But Sata had traveled to London for unspecified medical treatment last week. He died in a hospital there Tuesday evening.

“It’s shocking, it’s devastating, because I knew he was sick. But I did not know it was going to end this way,” said George Zulu, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “(We) lost a man who devoted his whole life to his country.”

Succession of office

Zambia’s constitution requires fresh elections within 90 days.

Ministers were in a Cabinet meeting Wednesday to discuss who will take over the reins in the interim period.

Defense Minister Edgar Lungu was appointed acting President before Sata left for London.

“The acting President is still in charge, we are awaiting the Cabinet announcement on the transition,” Zulu said.

The Cabinet meeting will also address the eligibility of Vice President Guy Scott taking over.

Scott is a white Zambian of Scottish descent. Even if he is named interim head, that will make him the first white head of state in Africa since apartheid.

Absence of leadership

Sata took office in September 2011 after the incumbent President tearfully conceded in a televised speech, a rarity in a continent known for volatile elections and leaders fighting their defeat tooth-and-nail.

Analysts hailed his election as an example of an African nation with a vibrant democracy. But not too long after he took office, speculation swirled over his lack of visibility — which especially stood out for a man who loves the spotlight.

Aides said his absence was a result of private international visits, and maintained those trips had nothing to do with medical treatment.

The nation’s bloggers have frequently criticized what they describe as “absence of leadership,” leading him to make a surprise appearance in parliament last month and declare that he was not dead.

Political origins

Sata was born in the Zambian town of Mpika in 1936, and worked as police officer during the colonial administration. He later trained as a pilot in Russia before returning home and helping develop housing projects in the nation.

During Zambia’s struggle for independence from Britain, he jumped into politics, and later founded the Patriotic Front — then an opposition party. His campaign events electrified crowds drawn to his extroverted nature and fight for the average man.

Sata, who narrowly lost to his predecessor Rupiah Banda in 2008, was a major critic of Chinese investment in the nation’s copper industry. He especially targeted foreign companies that mistreated Zambian workers, making him popular among the nation’s miners who accused the Chinese of deplorable work conditions.

While in office, he warned foreign companies that while their investment is crucial to his nation, they must abide by the labor laws.

The veteran politician has served in other positions, including city council, member of parliament and Cabinet minister for local government.

Before his election, the copper-rich nation in southern Africa had been ruled by the same party for decades.

By Faith Karimi and Brent Swails