African scourge of presidential paralysis

Adekeye Adebajo

Business Day, 29 May 2017

Recent reports that 74-year old Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, has returned to London to continue medical treatment for an undisclosed illness, and that 74-year old Angolan leader, Eduardo dos Santos (in power since 1979) – who had earlier reportedly been treated for prostate cancer – remains hospitalised in Spain after three weeks, raise fundamental questions about the health of African leaders and the lack of transparency on reporting on this critical issue. Buhari – having earlier gone to London to treat an “ear infection” – spent seven weeks in London earlier this year on a “medical vacation” before returning to Abuja.

Muhammadu Buhari at Chatham House in London.

African leaders often give the impression that the health of their countries is tied to their own personal health, and what is ailing a leader is often treated as a state secret. Though Africa has largely moved away from the Cold War era of “life-presidents” under military rule and one-party-states, the paradox still exists of a young continent – with over 60% of its population being under 25 – being led largely by old men, with the average age of African leaders being about 61. The phenomenon of African leaders seeking treatment – often described as “routine medical check-ups” – in Europe, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia, is a lamentable statement on their own failure to establish functioning health systems at home.

Local journalists have often been barred from reporting on the health of leaders under threat of arrest, while various presidential spokesmen either keep mute or report the leader as being “hale and hearty” or “fit as a fiddle”. This has led to sometimes farcical situations. The editor of a Guinean newspaper was arrested in 2008 for carrying a photo of an ailing president Lansana Conté, and forced to publish a different picture of a more sprightly president. But Conté still died a week later. Algerian prosecutors advocated legal action against two local newspapers for reporting that president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was in a coma in 2013. Ugandan police arrested two men last year for posting a picture of a “dead” president Yoweri Museveni on Facebook. In contrast, a few presidents have taken the opposite tack and played along with the rumours. On returning to Harare recently, Zimbabwe’s 93-year old president, Robert Mugabe – dogged for years by rumours of prostate cancer – noted “Yes it’s true I was dead and resurrected as I always do.” Cameroon’s 82-year old autocrat, Paul Biya, similarly retorted to rumours of his death in 2004 by noting that those who wanted to see him dead would have to wait another 20 years.

Since 2008, the leaders of nine African countries – Nigeria (Umaru Yar’Adua, pericarditis), Gabon (Omar Bongo, intestinal cancer), Guinea (Lansana Conté, undisclosed), Guinea-Bissau (Bacai Sanha, diabetes), Ghana (John Atta Mills, stroke and throat cancer), Malawi (Bingu wa Mutharika, heart attack), Ethiopia (Meles Zenawi, undisclosed), Zambia (Levy Mwanawasa, stroke; and Michael Sata, undisclosed) – died in office of illness. Most died in hospitals in France, Spain, Belgium, and England. In 2012 alone, four African presidents died in office. The power vacuum and political uncertainty created by some of these situations suggest that this is an issue that deserves greater attention. Presidential paralysis has often led to power struggles, triggering coups d’état in Guinea in 2008 and Guinea-Bissau in 2012, and a power vacuum in Nigeria before Goodluck Jonathan assumed full presidential powers in 2010. Smoother transitions have, however, occurred in Ghana, Malawi, and Zambia.

More recently, Malawi’s Peter Mutharika “disappeared” between September and October last year, fuelling speculation about his death and spurning the hashtag #Bring Back Mutharika. Algeria’s ailing 79-year old president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika (whose 2013 stroke put him permanently in a wheelchair following several months in a Paris hospital), cancelled a state visit to Algiers in February by German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at the last minute due to a bout of bronchitis. Cameroon’s Paul Biya – in power for 34 years – has been forced to deny reports in Le Monde that he has sought medical treatment during long sojourns in Geneva. Rumours proliferate about the health of Zambia’s Edgar Lungu who has collapsed in public and been accused by the opposition of being an alcoholic. There has also been continuing speculation about the health of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni and Eritrea’s Isaias Afewerki.

These incidents of presidential plagues have often confirmed the popular saying that: “Every rumour in Africa is true.”