Michael Sata, the president of Zambia who once swept British railroad station platforms for a living and whose reputation for a sharp tongue and abrasive manner earned him the nickname “King Cobra,” died late Tuesday at a London hospital, the Zambian government announced on Wednesday. He was 77.
The cause of his death, after months of largely unchronicled illness, was not made public.
The Zambian government, and Mr. Sata himself, persistently denied suggestions that he had a terminal illness, even when he missed an appearance at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this year after reports that he had taken ill in his hotel room.
Shortly before he left for New York, Mr. Sata mocked people who said he was sick. He was quoted as telling the opening of Parliament in Lusaka, the capital, “I am not dead yet.”
Mr. Sata flew to London 10 days ago for what the authorities called a “medical checkup abroad,” without revealing his destination.
The government met on Wednesday in Lusaka to determine an interim leader until elections are held within 90 days. Two leading candidates are Vice President Guy Scott, a white Zambian and former farmer and government minister, and Edgar Lungu, the defense minister, news reports said. Mr. Lungu was appointed acting president in Mr. Sata’s absence.
Michael Chilufya Sata was born on July 6, 1937, in Mpika, in the north of the country, then under British rule and known as Northern Rhodesia. He had scant formal education and at one point joined a seminary, intending to become a priest, according to a Zambian historian, Field Ruwe, quoted by Agence France-Presse.
Instead, he became a police officer. At one point, Mr. Sata spent time in London, working as a sweeper and porter at a railroad station. He entered politics, first in the labor movement, on his return home. He rose to become governor of Lusaka and worked closely under two former presidents, Kenneth Kaunda and Frederick Chiluba, before joining the opposition in 2001.
After losing three election bids, the gravel-voiced Mr. Sata finally took office in 2011, describing himself as a “man of action” who had tilted against the growing influence of Chinese investors in the economy of Zambia, a landlocked, sparsely populated nation largely dependent on its dominant copper mining industry.
As a candidate, Mr. Sata ran on an explicit promise to protect workers from exploitation by China and tapped into the nation’s divide between rich and poor, pledging to share Zambia’s wealth.
When two Chinese supervisors at a coal mine shot 13 workers protesting over wages in 2010, the episode bolstered Mr. Sata’s campaign. The Zambian government initially indicated that the Chinese managers would be punished, but the charges were quietly dropped. Mr. Sata, an opposition leader at the time, denounced the spilling of “innocent blood” by “merciless so-called investors.”
During his inauguration, Mr. Sata promised that foreign investments would be protected but said that they would not come at the expense of Zambians.
His smooth transition to power was a notable event in African politics, with the incumbent president stepping down peacefully.
Such was Mr. Sata’s willingness to talk bluntly that he once told a senior aide who apologized for public remarks that offended the leadership in South Africa, “You cannot be diplomatic all the time.”
He proved that point in July 2012, during a visit to Zambia by former President George W. Bush, according to African news reports. At a public gathering attended by journalists, Mr. Sata was quoted calling Mr. Bush a colonialist and referring pointedly to the scars of slavery on American society. Mr. Bush replied that the United States had never been a colonial power.
In office, Mr. Sata acquired a reputation for intolerance for political challengers. This year, for instance, an opposition leader, Frank Bwalya, faced defamation charges after likening Mr. Sata to a kind of potato used in local slang to denote a person who does not listen to others.
But his style seemed was far less despotic than that of some other African leaders, including President Robert G. Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe, with whom he cultivated friendly relations.
Mr. Sata’s relationship with Mr. Mugabe seemed to confirm his reputation as a bit of a conundrum. At times, he praised Mr. Mugabe’s anti-white policies but nonetheless chose Mr. Scott as his vice president. Mr. Sata and Mr. Scott had worked closely in opposition to promote the Patriotic Front party.
Reflecting a much broader debate in Africa, gay rights advocates accused Mr. Sata of failing to challenge a groundswell of homophobia, built on colonial-era laws still on the books and criminalizing homosexual acts.
“Those advocating gay rights should go to hell; that is not an issue we will tolerate,” Mr. Lungu was quoted as saying last year when he was the minister of home affairs. “There will be no such discussion on gay rights. That issue is foreign to this country.”
Mr. Sata died at the private King Edward VII hospital in London. His wife, Christine Kaseba, and his son, Mulenga Sata, were at his bedside, according to Roland Msiska, the cabinet secretary in Lusaka.
His absence from Lusaka meant that he missed one of Zambia’s milestones: the celebration last week of 50 years of independence from Britain.
Few Zambians fear the succession battle will turn violent. Zambia has an enviable track record in sub-Saharan Africa, suffering little of the ethnic strife or political chaos evident in some of its neighbors, like the Democratic Republic of Congo or Mozambique.
Several ministers had been jockeying to take over after the reports that Mr. Sata was ill. It was not clear if those contenders would include Mr. Scott. Since his parents were not born in Zambia, his critics say, he is ineligible to become head of state.