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Last Updated: Friday, 29 September 2006, 15:27 GMT 16:27 UK
Profile: Zambia's 'King Cobra'
Michael Sata, nicknamed "King Cobra", could well be the next Zambian president after elections this week.

Patriotic Front Presidential candidate, Michael Sata gestures to supporters during a political rally
Michael Sata has the common touch but can he handle international affairs?

He portrays himself as "a man of action" but his critics say he is nothing but a thug.

Many Zambians see the 69-year-old as a man who gets things done, from his time as a minister under both of Zambia's former presidents - Kenneth Kaunda and Frederick Chiluba.

His nickname conjures up two views on him - ready to strike or slippery and dangerous.

Some recall that when he was local government minister, the country's roads were clean and the councils worked properly.

He was later moved to the health ministry, where he once more shook things up.

But others associate him with political thuggery after his days as minister without portfolio, a position the man himself admits "was the ministry for the MMD [ruling party]".

The chain-smoking, gravely-voiced veteran does have the common touch.

The BBC's Maureen Nkandu-Mundea says he speaks the language of ordinary people but can be rather brusque.

China row

His critics say his abrasive style is unsuited to the refined diplomacy of international politics.

They argue that he has already damaged Zambia's international standing just by his campaign.

He is not good for democracy but he can whip and bully a drunken and demoralised Zambia into action
Owen Sichone
Zambian commentator
He has been seen with Taiwanese businessmen, who are alleged to be funding his campaign - reports he has denied.

He has also threatened to deport foreigners, including Chinese, Indians and Lebanese, who he accuses of mistreating their Zambian workers.

Taken together, these incidents have led China to warn it might cut off ties with Zambia if Mr Sata is elected.

On election day, he enhanced both his populist credentials and international doubts by praising Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe's policy of seizing white-owned land.

"Mugabe hasn't done anything wrong. It is the imperialists, the capitalist-roaders who say he is a villain," he said.

"The people of Zimbabwe are not suffering. They are much happier."

Zimbabwe's inflation rate is 1,200% - the highest in the world, while some expelled white farmers have moved into Zambia, where they are earning foreign currency by growing and exporting tobacco.

Former President Kaunda appointed "King Cobra" to the cabinet but is now campaigning against him.

"I know him very well, he cannot do well as president because he is not presidential material at all," Mr Kaunda said.

'Hard to read'

Mr Sata was born and brought up in Mpika, Northern Province.

He worked as a policeman, railwayman and trades unionist before entering politics in 1963.

Supporter of Michael Sata
Sata promised to cut taxes during the campaign

He worked his way up through the rough-and-tumble rank-and-file of the former ruling United National Independence Party to the governorship of Lusaka in 1985, where he made his mark as an action man.

He went on to join Mr Chiluba in setting up the Movement for Multiparty Democracy.

After Mr Chiluba defeated Mr Kaunda in 1991, Mr Sata became one of Zambia's most instantly recognisable faces, as the now ruling party's national organising secretary.

However, when Mr Chiluba nominated Levy Mwanawasa as MMD candidate in 2001, Mr Sata, left and set up a new party, the Patriotic Front (PF).

He contested the 2001 elections but did not do well - his party only won one seat in parliament.

Before the 2001 elections, Zambian commentator Owen Sichone described Mr Sata as a bit of a Mussolini: "He is not good for democracy but he can whip and bully a drunken and demoralised Zambia into action."

Many people who have worked with him say he knows how to get a job done.

"He uses technocrats who perform and he doesn't feel insecure if someone knows better," says former Agriculture Minister Guy Scott.

"He's an odd mixture and hard to read," says Mr Scott, one of Mr Sata's closest allies, as PF Secretary General.

"He cultivates a rough image but he's truly concerned about people's suffering - perhaps that's what makes him charismatic."

During the campaign, Mr Sata promised to cut taxes and improve services by building more schools and health clinics.

Mr Sata, a Catholic, is married to a doctor and has eight children.


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