"King Cobra" Sata wins Zambia presidential race

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Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata, a critic of foreign mining investment, won an upset presidential election victory on Friday which may cloud the investment outlook in Africa’s biggest copper producer.

In a continent where leaders are often reluctant to give up power, incumbent Rupiah Banda tearfully conceded defeat, saying the people had spoken and called for unity. His Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) party has run Zambia since one-party rule ended in 1991.

“Now is not the time for violence and retribution. Now is the time to unite and build tomorrow’s Zambia together,” he told a news conference, his wife Thandiwe standing at his side.

“My generation, the generation of the independence struggle, must now give way to new ideas, ideas for the 21st century.”

Sata, 74 and nicknamed “King Cobra” because of his sharp tongue, toned down his rhetoric against foreign mining firms, especially from China, in the closing stages of the six-week campaign but his victory could still make investors nervous.

Zambia’s kwacha fell 2.8 percent to a 14-month-low of 5,145 against the dollar after Sata’s victory and traders said it would remain vulnerable until he gave clearer indications on his future policies.

Sata, the leader of the Patriotic Front (PF), told Reuters last week he would maintain strong commercial and diplomatic ties with China and would not introduce a minerals windfall tax, but implied he might impose some form of capital controls to keep dollars in the country.

Chief Justice Ernest Sakala declared Sata the winner after he received 1,150,045 votes compared with Banda’s 961,796 with 95.3 percent of constituencies counted. Sata received 43 percent of the vote, which was also contested by many minor parties.

Sata has enjoyed a long and varied career that included stints in motor vehicle assembly plants in Britain and with British Rail before becoming a grassroots political activist under first president Kenneth Kaunda.

He likes to keep a statue of a rearing snake on his desk as a reminder to enemies of his sharp tongue.

Supporters of Sata, who will be sworn in as president later on Friday, celebrated the win.

“At long last the will of the people has been respected. The people wanted change,” said street vendor Peter Musonda.

SUPPORT FROM YOUTH

Sata secured support among the youth on the back of campaign promises of creating more jobs and his criticism that Banda’s government failed to let ordinary Zambians share in the proceeds from the country’s copper mines.

“We are now a relieved nation. God has finally answered our prayer,” said Emmanuel Mwanza, a student at the Zambian Open University.

China welcomed the outcome of the vote and said it would continue fostering cooperation.

“As a friendly country of Zambia’s, we respect the Zambian people’s choice, and are willing to continue to promote traditional friendship with Zambia and expand mutually beneficial cooperation in every aspect,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular briefing in Beijing.

Chinese companies have become major players in Zambia’s economy, with total investments by the end of 2010 topping $2 billion, according to data from the Chinese embassy.

But Sata has accused Chinese mining firms of creating slave labor conditions with scant regard for safety or the local culture.

Election monitors from the European Union and regional grouping the Southern African Development Community said the polls were largely fair although there was some violence.

Youths fought running battles with riot police on Thursday in the towns of Ndola and Kitwe, 250 km (150 miles) north of Lusaka, setting fire to vehicles and markets in the normally peaceful mining heartland.

Sata had strong backing in urban areas and the economic center in the Copper Belt, while Banda, a farmer and former diplomat, relied on votes from rural areas.

Analysts said younger voters also helped propel Sata to victory with the youth using the ballot box to bring about change in a continent that has seen the long-standing rulers of Egypt and Tunisia toppled by mass street protests.

In 2008 Sata lost to Banda by just 35,000 votes, or 2 percent of the electorate, in a presidential run-off triggered by the death in office of Levy Mwanawasa.