LUSAKA, Zambia (AP) — Zambian President Michael Sata, once dubbed "Mr. King Cobra" for his sharp-tongued remarks, has died in a London hospital after a long illness. Vice President Guy Scott, a white Zambian of Scottish descent, became the country's acting president Wednesday, making him the first white leader of a sub-Saharan African nation since 1994 when South Africa moved to majority rule.
Sata, 77, had largely dropped out of public view months ago as his health deteriorated. The government did not divulge details of his condition, but some Zambian media outlets said he suffered multiple organ failure.
Rumors that Sata was deathly ill had long gripped Zambia, and opposition groups had questioned whether he was fit to lead a country of 15 million people that has enjoyed robust economic growth but suffers widespread poverty. He had served as president since 2011.
Under the constitution, Scott, a 70-year-old former agriculture minister who also worked in Zambia's finance ministry, cannot run for president because his parents were not Zambians by birth or descent.
"Elections for the office of president will take place within 90 days. In the interim, I am the acting president," Scott said in a radio address. "The period of national mourning started today. We will miss our beloved president and commander."
Defense Minister Edgar Lungu, who also runs the justice ministry and is secretary general of the ruling Patriotic Front party, said it is a difficult period for Zambia and the party that Sata founded.
"The government remains intact and so does the PF as a party," said Lungu, who is considered a possible presidential candidate.
Sata died late Tuesday night at London's King Edward VII hospital with his wife, Christine Kaseba-Sata, and his son, Mulenga Sata, at his side, said Cabinet secretary Roland Msiska. The son is the mayor of the Zambian capital, Lusaka.
Zambia had already declared Wednesday a national day of mourning for 26 people, all but three of them schoolchildren, who died Oct. 24 when a crowded boat capsized on Lake Kariba near the border with Zimbabwe. The children were heading to a ceremony marking Zambia's 50th anniversary of independence from Britain.
Kenya, South Africa and other countries sent condolences to Zambia over Sata's death. British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said Sata "played a commanding role in the public life of his country over three decades."
U.S. President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle also sent their condolences.
"The United States remains committed to our enduring friendship and partnership with Zambia, and strongly supports a peaceful constitutional transition of power as the country moves forward during this time of sorrow," Obama said in a statement.
On Sept. 19, Sata spoke at the opening of parliament in Lusaka, poking fun at speculation about his failing health and insisting that he was still alive.
But he later failed to give a scheduled address at the United Nations in New York, where police said doctors treated him in a hotel room.
Sata had a volatile relationship with Chinese investors in Zambian mines and other infrastructure, criticizing them as exploitative but toning down his rhetoric after taking office.
Some critics say Sata became increasingly intolerant as president. An opposition leader, Frank Bwalya, was acquitted this year of defamation charges after he compared Sata to a local potato whose name is slang for someone who doesn't listen.
As an opposition leader, Sata lost three presidential votes before taking office as Zambia's fifth president. He also served in previous governments, and was a member of every major party.
Sata was born in Mpika in what was then northern Rhodesia, and worked as a police officer and trade unionist under colonial rule. He also trained as a pilot in Russia.
After independence in 1964, he joined Kenneth Kaunda's United National Independent Party, becoming governor of Lusaka, a city as well as a province, in 1985.
He resigned from Kaunda's party in 1991 and joined the new Movement for Multiparty Democracy, later serving as a party lawmaker for 10 years and as minister for local government, labor and social security, and health.
In 2001, he left to form his Patriotic Front party. In 2008, he suffered a stroke. The same year, President Levy Mwanawasa died following a stroke and a special election saw Sata narrowly lose to Rupiah Banda, who had been Mwanawasa's vice president.
Sata's wife is a medical doctor, and the couple had eight children.
Sata introduced his wife at the opening of parliament last month, crediting her with tough love.
"She has made me stay up to now," he said. "I haven't died yet."
Torchia contributed to this report from Johannesburg.