Lusaka (AFP) - Ailing Zambian President Michael Sata has not been seen in public for more than two months, prompting a behind-the-scenes power struggle to succeed him.
Publicly at least, the government of this copper-rich nation maintains that 77-year-old Sata -- once nicknamed "King Cobra" -- is in sound health and is discharging his duties as normal.
But inside Lusaka's State House and the headquarters of his ruling Patriotic Front (PF), such is the worry about Sata's health that jockeying for position has already begun, according to analysts.
"There is a power struggle because those that are close to him know that he is not strong enough to live much longer, and they have advanced their preparations for elections," political scientist Neo Simutanyi told AFP.
Sata has not been seen in public since June 19, when state television showed him meeting visiting Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao.
Since then he has been conspicuous by his absence from a top-level US-Africa summit in Washington, a meeting of southern African leaders just across the border in Zimbabwe and even the opening of a bridge named after him.
If the president dies in office or steps down for health reasons, the cabinet will name an acting president.
Vice President Guy Scott, who is of Scottish descent, is not eligible to take over as his parents were not born in Zambia.
The next national election is not due until 2016, but in the event of Sata's death a presidential vote would have to be held within 90 days.
- Factions -
Two main camps have formed within the Patriotic Front leadership in preparation for the succession, Simutanyi said.
One group of mainly Bemba-speaking officials includes Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda, former defence minister Geoffrey Mwamba and Sata's son Mulenga, who is Lusaka mayor and PF chairperson for Lusaka province.
Chikwanda, a veteran finance minister, is given presidential powers when Sata leaves the country because of Scott's ineligibility for the post.
The second group comprises Scott, Justice Minister and PF secretary-general Wynter Kabimba, former tourism minister Sylvia Masebo and others. Kabimba, in particular, is seen as close to Sata.
"The PF is the most undisciplined party and very soon we will see these two camps fighting each other badly because they know the state in which the president is," Simutanyi said.
Finance Minister Chikwanda on Tuesday told state run radio that "a cartel" wanted to usurp power.
His remarks appeared to be aimed at The Post newspaper which is seen as offering positive coverage to his perceived rival Kabimba.
"The Bemba group feels they are losing the fight," Simutanyi said. "They might lose because Kabimba as party secretary general can determine the list of delegates to the convention at which the party would endorse his candidature."
Zambian authorities have in the past cracked down on political opponents and journalists who have reported on the president's long-suspected illness and frequent "working trips" abroad, apparently for medical treatment.
But leading opposition figures and some rights activists have still called on Sata to step down on health grounds after disappearing from public view.
- 'Who is ruling us?' -
"Who is really ruling us?" asked All People’s Congress president Nason Msoni.
"I think we are simply on auto pilot, there is nothing that is moving in our country and Sata is paid for doing nothing," Msoni told AFP.
“We have a serious power vacuum and the cabinet has not met in a long time. What has saved this country is that Zambians are a peaceful people," Msoni said.
“We cannot allow this to continue. The man is incapacitated -- let him step down."
Sata’s wife, Christine, a medical doctor, said recently that the head of state was in sound health but civil rights activist Brebner Changala insists that if that is true the president should come into the open and address the nation.
"The government says he is enjoying good health but doubting Thomases like myself want to see him,” he said.
Scott has also said publicly that Sata is in good health, accusing those claiming he is unwell of peddling lies.