August 28, 2014 / 3:06 PM / 3 years ago

Zambia's president fires potential rival amid illness talk

* President Sata not seen in public for two months

* Fired justice minister seen as potential successor

* Zambia is Africa’s No. 2 copper producer after DRC

By Chris Mfula

LUSAKA, Aug 28 (Reuters) - Zambian President Michael Sata fired Minister of Justice Wynter Kabimba on Thursday, his spokesman said, removing a potential rival at a time when questions are being asked about the health of the leader of Africa’s second-largest copper producer.

Sata, 77, has not been seen in public since June 19 when state television showed him meeting visiting Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao. This absence from public view has fuelled speculation that he is suffering from serious illness.

Aides have repeatedly said he is in good health and has been working as normal in State House in the capital Lusaka.

Sata was among a handful of presidents who did not attend a summit of African leaders hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington earlier this month. He also missed a meeting of southern African leaders in neighbouring Zimbabwe two weeks ago.

Kabimba, who was also the secretary general of Sata’s ruling Patriotic Front party, was replaced by Defence Minister Edgar Lungu, Sata’s spokesman George Chellah said in a statement, without giving a reason. Kabimba also lost the party post.

He had been involved in a battle with other senior government officials over the presidential succession, analysts said. He was not available to comment on his sacking.

“This is a manifestation of a power struggle. He was a potential threat and very powerful figure,” said Macdonald Chipenzi, an analyst with Zambia’s Foundation for Democratic Process, an pro-democracy NGO.

“The greatest problem that has gripped the nation is the president’s absence and the earlier he comes out from wherever he is, the better,” Chipenzi added.

Sata suffered a heart attack in 2008 and his opponents said he collapsed during a six-week election campaign in 2011, a claim the president denied. The next election is due in 2016.

If a Zambian president dies or steps down, the cabinet would name an acting leader and there would be an election within 90 days. Vice President Guy Scott is not eligible to take over because his parents were not born in Zambia. (Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Pascal Fletcher)

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