Michael Sata, Zambia's 5th president (Wikimedia)
Michael Sata, Zambia's 5th president (2011-present). Photo by Oskar Lorenz, Wikimedia Commons
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AP
Supporters of Michael Sata gather to see him takes the oath of office on the steps of the Lusaka Supreme Court, Friday Sept. 23, 2011. Photo by AP

The president of Zambia is in Israel for medical treatment, Israeli officials confirm, in contrast to statements by the government in Lusaka that Michael Sata is on a "working visit" at the invitation of Israeli President Shimon Peres.

Rumors have been circulating Lusaka for some time that Sata is ill, possibly suffering from cancer. Yesterday the website Zambian Watchdog reported that far from his visit to Israel being a "working" meeting between the presidents, he was hallucinating the day before his flight to Tel Aviv and may even have reached the state of Israel last Friday unconscious.

Adding fuel to the rumors, the Zambian Watchdog further reported on Thursday afternoon that a top army source confirmed Sata's illness, adding that the army has been concerned about his frailness.

The Watchdog also wrote that his treatment in Israel – reportedly at Assuta Medical Center - is being funded by China. Business ties between Zambia and China go back decades: among other things China has been heavily involved in infrastructure development there. Lusaka itself doesn't have the budget to finance Sata's hospitalization in Israel, the Watchdog claims, writing that the Chinese funding was agreed upon "when China’s vice President Li Yuanchao visited Zambia two days before Sata ‘vanished’." Assuta today declined to comment on the Watchdog report, saying that it never comments on patients, or their identity, for reasons of medical confidentiality.

On Wednesday Peres' office confirmed that Sata had been invited.

But meanwhile, the Zambian newspaper "The Post" reported yesterday that confusion and suspicion in the capital have risen so high that the Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Mkhondo Lungu, demanded clarifications from Vice-President Guy Scott regarding Sata's "working holiday in Israel" – a mystery not made clearer by the fact that Peres himself isn't even in Israel now, he's in the United States, as member of parliament Jack Mwiimbu pointed out.

In May, the Zambian government criticized what it called “outlandish and unsubstantiated statements” by opposition leaders who had alleged that 76-year-old Sata was tired and stressed.

The Foreign Ministry confirmed on Wednesday that Sata was in the Jewish state, but spokesman Paul Hirschson had no details on how long Sata would remain or the exact purpose of the trip.

On Thursday Zambian civil rights activist Brebner Changala demanded details on Sata's doings. “President Sata is the property of Zambians and not Chuck Norris who can go missing in action and expect Zambians to enjoy and clap on his disappearing acts," the Zambian paper Daily Nation quoted Changala saying. The Daily Nation also reports that Scott said he didn't know when Sata is due back.

Sata was elected in 2011 in his fourth attempt at the presidency, ousting a party that had held power for 20 years.

The disinformation circulating in Zambia reached the point that earlier this week, acting Information Minister Mwansa Kapeya insisted that Peres would be staying in Israel, not traveling to the U.S., in order to meet with Sata, the Zambian Watchdog reported.

"It's really odd that our president sneaks out of the country, then pitches up in Tel Aviv, where he's never been before, at least not to any Zambian's knowledge, in order to hold talks with the outgoing President Peres. What on earth would they have to talk about?" said a source in the know in Zambia.

With reporting by Barak Ravid.