At 87 and suffering from prostate cancer [dubbed eye cataract in some circles], surely, the man deserves to rest and as well to rest the nation. Unfortunately, in most African countries, the illness or death of leaders is but a closely guarded secret. The president’s health chart has remained unknown for years.
Most African governments lack openness regarding the health of leaders. The Botswana Guardian of Sat 19 Feb 2011 carried an article on the recent health conditions of the vice president, Mompati Merafhe. The media alleged that the vice president had suffered a heart attack and was admitted at Bokamoso hospital. A couple of hours later, the government chief propagandist, a Dr. Jeff Ramsay (Rumour Says) vehemently denied the reports, saying the VP was ‘fit as a fiddle’. This is not only peculiar to Botswana. In Nigeria, officials denied that president Umaru Yar’Adua was gravely sick until the day he died. Government spin doctors always maintained that the president was ‘in good condition’.
Similarly, in June of 2008, the late president of Zambia, Levy Mwanawasa suffered a massive stroke during the African Union (AU) Summit in Egypt. He was admitted in an Egyptian hospital before he was transferred to France where he died two months later. Even when it was evident that the president was critically ill, the government never acknowledged that his situation was life threatening. Surprisingly, an information minister in Zambia was reprimanded when he called on the Zambians to start looking for a replacement to Mwanawasa.
In religious circles, Kenya’s Daily Nation (9March 2011) reported that millions of the Catholic Church sect, Legio Maria followers in Kenya believed that their Messiah and founding Pope Melkio Ondetto was not suppose to die. Being the African version of the reincarnated Son of God, as they believed, he was immortal. When he died on September 5, 1991 the faithful would hear none of it, nor would they contemplate his burial.
In recent weeks, secrecy surrounded the Zimbabwe president’s several trips to Malaysia and Singapore. Twice in February, he is reported to have travelled to Singapore for an eye operation. The government spokesman denied claims that the ailing president had problems with prostate cancer, as reported in several media circles. In Zimbabwe still, two former vice presidents, Joshua Nkomo and Simon Muzenda met their death while still ‘active’ in office. Age and ill health were not reasons for them to bequeath office, and this can be said of the president. He will rule until he drops dead.
But why is Africa replete with mystery on issues of the health of leaders? Does this have to do with African traditions that wrongly teach that leaders are immortal? Writing for Ghanaweb, Elizabeth Ohene summed it, "Our leaders are never ill and indeed they do not get tired. And they certainly do not die". The chief or king in a traditional set-up only "goes to his village" and it is treasonable to say he has died. It is seditious in Zimbabwe to ever think of Mugabe as seriously ill or dead. He is supposed to defy the natural order of life and death.
The same was a common phenomenon in ancient Zimbabwe where the chief was never ill or would not die. Actually, the chief’s death was announced months after his real death. In times of serious illness, the chief would be moved from the palace to some sacred forest where he is cared for until death. Meanwhile, the information given was that the chief had travelled. This was done for security reasons so that other clans would not take advantage of the chief’s illness and attack his kingdom. In modern days however, it is baffling that government spin doctors are ready to rebuke any reports of leaders being in bad health. Whether it is for security reasons or for perpetuation of their reign remains unclear.
In developed countries, the health of a leader is not a guarded secret. After undergoing a major heart surgery in 1955, US president Dwight Eisenhower is said to have told his press secretary to keep the nation informed about his condition. "Tell them everything," He had said. Just recently, a US Arizona’s democrat congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords, was seriously wounded in a shooting rampage. Her medical doctors issued daily updates about her condition.
Americans from the two main political parties put their differences aside and prayed for her speedy recovery. Where information is passed, the nation joins in praying for the quick recovery of leaders. Would this happen in African countries? I remain apprehensive. People don’t join in praying for the health of leaders in Africa because their health remains a closely guarded secret and spin doctors claim it’s their [leaders] right to privacy. A public leader’s health is not a private matter.
According to University of Botswana Social Work lecturer Log Raditlhokwa, secrecy is part of the African culture, and it is not surprising that African leaders would not discuss the health of their leaders with the public. He said that failure to divulge the state of their leaders’ health is mainly because African leaders are insecure. He said leaders often fear that such information may cause tensions and result in power battles. "In most African countries positions of power become vacant only after death because of leaders who refuse to relinquish power and this often cause conflicts as people position themselves to replace leaders who have died," he said. Zimbabwe being in a similar situation with an ailing and aged president, it is treasonable, so I am told, to ask the president to resign. Maybe I would be cautious and invite bidders to ‘purchase or hire’ this ailing president.
Capulet B. Chakupeta