‘Obama Is to America What Scott Is to Zambia’

Why does the first white head of state in an African democracy come as such a surprise?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

LUSAKA, Zambia — Earlier this week, Zambia appointed Guy Scott to the post of president, making him the country’s first white leader since independence from Britain 50 years ago — and the first white head of state in a democratic African country. It’s a remarkable moment, and it says a lot about this particular country’s remarkable success in navigating the complexities of post-colonial ethnic politics.

On Oct. 29, the Zambian cabinet named Scott, a Zambian of British origin, as the successor of President Michael Sata, who had died the previous day in a London hospital, where he was undergoing treatment for an undisclosed illness. Scott will serve as acting president until voters choose his replacement in a by-election, which has to be held within the first 90 days after his appointment. (Somewhat ironically, he won’t be able to campaign in the election, since a clause in the constitution specifies that only those whose parents were born in Zambia are eligible to stand for the office, and Scott’s were from Scotland.)

Despite its temporary character, Scott’s appointment still marks a watershed for post-colonial Africa. It’s a sign of how Zambia has managed to move beyond the divisive racial politics that have dominated the continent for five decades — in sharp contrast to, say, neighboring Zimbabwe, where the colonial past still weighs heavily on the political present. Zambia’s unique position attests to the enduring legacy of its first post-independence leader, President Kenneth Kaunda, who strongly advocated policies that encouraged ethnic, religious, racial, and regional integration. Despite being home to more than 70 different tribal groups, the country has a reputation for stability that has made it something of a model for other African democracies.

Mark Chona, a veteran Zambian bureaucrat, told me that Guy Scott’s prominence embodies the pledge that Kaunda made on the day the country gained independence. “Dr. Kenneth Kaunda said that Zambia shall be a non-racial — not multiracial –but a non-racial society,” Chona said. “Here, color isn’t a factor for any Zambian seeking any opportunity.” Kaunda, who’s widely revered despite the authoritarianism that marred the end of his reign, expressed his philosophy in the national motto, “One Zambia, One Nation.” Now Zambians have come up with a new slogan: “Obama is to America what Scott is to Zambia.” (The photo above shows Scott, at right, with the U.S. president at a summit of African leaders in Washington in August.)

Even though Scott, a Cambridge-educated economist, won’t be able to run in the presidential race, he enjoys a good reputation in this country of 15 million, a population that includes just 40,000 of European origin. Scott’s politics are informed by his family’s long history of collaboration with Zambian nationalists who fought for separation from British colonial rule. Scott, who was born in the Zambian city of Livingstone — across the river from the Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls — joined active politics in 1990 as a member of the Movement for Multiparty Democracy, later switching to the Patriotic Front of Michael Sata in 2001. Scott is strikingly popular with voters in his Lusaka constituency, having garnered more than 70 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary election.

His late father, Alexander Scott, an ally of the Zambian nationalists, was a founder of anti-colonial-government newspapers, including one that later became the government-owned Zambia Daily Mail. “I am deeply honored because I know it’s a popular appointment,” Scott told reporters after his appointment as Zambia’s first white vice president in September 2011. “I will do my damn best to do right for the people who put me here.” In 2012, Scott recalled a visit to his country by ex-U.S. President George W. Bush: “When they introduced me as vice president, he thought they were kidding.”

Sata, Scott’s close political ally, told parliamentarians a few weeks ago that having Scott in the government boosted the country’s image as a destination for investors. “I brought Dr. Scott in as vice president to help me develop Zambia,” Sata said. Copper-rich Zambia has recorded growth rates of more than 6 percent during Sata’s rule.

Zambians have had plenty of political differences in the years since a campaign of street protests triggered the transition to electoral democracy in 1991. Most recently, members of the opposition boycotted the 50th anniversary ceremony of Zambian independence as part of a dispute over the government’s delay in presenting a promised draft of a new constitution that includes far-reaching changes to the electoral system. The government finally presented the draft a few hours before the jubilee celebration on Oct. 25; now Zambians are insisting that the government provide a road map for its adoption, which is likely to include a referendum.

Opposition leaders have accused Sata — and Scott — of orchestrating a drift towards authoritarianism. Scott dismissed those criticisms in an interview with the Guardian last year: “It’s a wheeze, it’s an attempt I suppose based on some of the stuff that took place in Russia to denounce a government rather than eject it,” he told the paper. “But I really am very hard-pressed to find a corner I can sit in and believe that we’re looking at a one-party state again.” His critics are now taking aim at his appointment, saying that it violates the constitutional requirement about the eligibility of presidential candidates.

What’s eminently clear is that Zambia has signally managed to avoid the sort of ethnic, religious, or racial conflict that has plagued so many others in the region. Zambia, for example, has been notably bereft of the lingering bitterness that allowed Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe to exploit resentment of white farmers and their control of land to foment division and undermine democracy. The contrast has a great deal to do with the differences in the two countries’ struggles for independence.

“Yes, Zambia did lose lives in the struggle for her independence, but our struggle was really nonviolent, and we were left with less bitterness after independence,” veteran politician Sikota Wina told me. “What we hated about colonial rule was the system and its racial discrimination policies. But our friends in Zimbabwe went through a more violent struggle with guerrilla wars and more loss of life, which could be responsible for the bitterness Zimbabweans seem to show against the Europeans now.”

Zimbabwean opposition activist Tinashe Nyastianu, who fled his homeland after repeated attacks by the police, praised Zambia’s approach: “It’s good to have many ethnic groups living and working together in your country because it brings prosperity,” he told me. Zambia was successful internationally, he said, because Sata showed that “he doesn’t hold grudges against colonial masters.”

Of course, the international fuss over Scott’s appointment shows that both Africans and outsiders have yet to transcend racial politics entirely. (For what it’s worth, though Scott is the first democratic head of state in an African country, he’s not the first “white leader” since apartheid, as some news outlets have been erroneously reporting. The African island nation of Mauritius elected a prime minister of European origin in 2003.) But Zambia’s approach does offer hope that Africans can find ways of healing the divisions that still plague so many of their societies.

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