Succession debate creates controversy.


Zambia was thrown into a state of confusion on 3 July when word went around that President Levy Mwanawasa had died. The government did its utmost to assure the nation that he was alive. At the time of going to press, the president was still receiving treatment in a military hospital in France. While the nation has held together during his illness, it is the politics of succession in the ruling party that is dominating political debate. Austin Mbewe reports from Lusaka.

It was about the power of the media and the inherent pitfalls of being excited with unverified "breaking news". Text messages did the rounds, some media houses threw to the wind their longstanding in-house rules of checking facts, and the message of gloom and doom was purveyed worldwide: "Zambian President dies, say reports". How the supposed death of a president of country X was first known in country Y was an issue that fell squarely on how irresponsible some media houses handled a story that never was.

Talk Radio 702 in South Africa churned out the hoax. They carried a story quoting Malone Zaza, whom they identified as a spokesman of the Zambian embassy in Pretoria, confirming that President Levy Mwanawasa, who was admitted to a Paris hospital, had died.

From there, international news channels picked it up and fed the globe. So strong was the rumour that the South African president, Thabo Mbeki, even called for a minute of silence when he was told that his Zambian counterpart had died. His office apologised.

Lusaka moved in swiftly, with the information minister appearing on state television to dispel the version fed to the world. The story then speedily changed: "Zambia denies President Mwanawasa is dead. "The government also disowned Zaza, as the Zambian mission in Pretoria did not have such an official.

The nation was torn between believing its own government and the earlier media reports. The question was, could the "trusted" news wires be wrong or was the government trying to manage a crisis by deceit?

There was intense suspense, and a dark cloud hung over the country. Amid the confusion, some people took interest in knowing what the law said about a presidential vacancy. According to the constitution, the vice-president acts for 90 days after which elections are held.

A week later, the Zambian authorities moved into Johannesburg and tracked down Zaza, a 26-year-old student at the University of South Africa, and quizzed him on why he alarmed the world. Zaza did not...

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