The health of African presidents

The physical and mental health of a head of state, one assumes, is a basic requirement as to whether they can perform their job adequately. Not in some parts of Africa.

Graffiti of Algeria's President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in Saint-Romain-au-Mont-d'Or, Rhone-Alpes, France. Image: Thierry Ehrmann (via Flickr CC).

For those with more than a passing interest in African politics, the incessant 24 hour news and social media chatter about the health of Democratic Party U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and that of her Republican Party rival Donald Trump, may appear strange. Because, when it comes to electoral politics or the health of a head of state in Africa, the physical condition of the dear leader is basically off limits and subject to much obfuscation and mystery, in some cases even after they’ve long left us.

Earlier this month, Robert Mugabe — who has served as either Prime Minister or President of Zimbabwe uninterrupted since independence in 1980 — arrived back from a trip to East Asia. Rumors quickly spread that he had gone for medical treatment. He had made secretive trips to East Asia before to be treated for prostate cancer or cataracts. A 2008 American diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks confirmed most of this. Mugabe made a similar trip in 2012. During his most recent trip, rumors swirled in local media that he had died. On arrival back in Harare after a few days, Mugabe tried to make light of the situation: “Yes, I was dead, it’s true I was dead. I resurrected as I always do.”

Speculation over Mugabe’s health is an all-consuming topic for Zimbabweans, as The New York Times reported earlier this month. The main reasons are because the government doesn’t choose to release any of his medical information, Mugabe doesn’t seem to trust local doctors (an odd position for someone who is such an ardent Pan-Africanist) and there is no annual check-up for the President. So, there’s nothing else to do but speculate. When the 92 year old Mugabe was caught on video stumbling or literally falling asleep while giving a speech at a meeting with Japan’s Prime Minister, the media frenzy began afresh. More recently, enterprising Zimbabweans with access to the internet, have come up with a novel way to measure his health: They follow the flight plans of Mugabe’s plane, using information that is freely available online.

In March this year, Mugabe was scheduled to travel to India on official business. After the host government confirmed it knew of no such trip, a group of Zimbabweans followed the direction of Mugabe’s plane to Singapore. (The internet, by the way, is lately becoming a big factor in Zimbabwean politics.) During his most recent trip, Zimbabweans figured out where he was by doing the same thing again. The government usually denies the President’s whereabouts, then later makes up some bogus reason for his absence. The favorite one is that he is visiting with one of his children on family business – as if it is common for a head of state to just up and leave the country to attend to personal business without telling anyone. Zimbabweans aren’t impressed.

But Mugabe is stubborn and he has not expressed any desire to step down from office. He has already announced that he will run again in elections scheduled for 2018. His wife, Grace, once told supporters Mugabe would rule until he was 100 years old, even from a “special” wheelchair if need be. Where senior leaders in Mugabe’s party, ZANU-PF, have dared raise the question of succession (ZANU-PF assumes it will win elections in perpetuity), they are immediately accused of plotting a coup (that was the fate of one of his vice-presidents, who left the party) or declared factionalists (the label attached to current VP, Emmerson Mnangagwa).

Cameroon’s Paul Biya has been less inconspicuous about his failing health. Biya has been Cameroonian president since 1982 when he replaced President Ahmadou Ahidjo, due to the latter’s failing health. Biya has a habit of leaving Cameroon for long periods – last year, for example, he was out of the country for at least one month without any explanation provided. In October 2008, two days short of being absent for the 45-day limit that would have required him, constitutionally, to be replaced, Biya returned, thus ruining parties celebrating his death.

Two weeks ago, Biya left for “a private visit to Europe.” Some Cameroonians joke that Biya visits Cameroon from Europe. Cameroonians abroad have called, multiple times, for the Inter-Continental Hotel in Geneva, Switzerland to evict their leader who travels there with delegations of top level ministers and their families, spending nearly $40,000 per night while the average Cameroonian subsists on less than a dollar a day. The rumor recently doing the rounds was that Biya has prostate cancer, but good luck investigating that. In 2004, journalist Pius Njawe was sentenced to 10 months in prison for revealing that the president had an undisclosed illness. The most surprising departure was in March 2015, when in the middle of a war against Boko Haram (which had spilled over into Cameroon), Biya left for Switzerland. Pressed about last summer’s month-long “private” visit to Germany, presidential spokespeople said Biya went to personally interview investors.

Had I known former president of Ghana Atta Mills was sick in 2012, I would have laughed less at ecomini (economy) and his other gaffes. The problem is that no one in Ghana knew he was ill and his administration did everything they could to cover it up. In 2012, after returning from the United States for medical checks, Atta Mills jogged around the airport to show how healthy he was. A month later he was dead. Until then, rumors of his failing health and rumors that he had gone blind were met with derision. In interviews, his communications team and government staffers would actually insult anyone who suggested Atta Mills was not at his best. After his death, the Committee for Social Advocacy in Ghana submitted detailed questions surrounding his death. To date, there is no clarity on how Atta Mills died.

Then there is the case of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria. Bouteflika came to power in 1999 and is credited with ending Algeria’s bloody civil war of the 1990s. In 2013 Bouteflika suffered a stroke and was hospitalized in France. At the time there were rumors that he had died. Claims of his ill health were not new.  Since his 2013 stroke, Bouteflika has been confined to a wheelchair and is rarely seen in public. Nevertheless, his party announced in 2014 that he would again be its presidential candidate. Bouteflika barely campaigned or said a word (when he did, he spoke in a whisper through a microphone attached to his wheelchair), but still won a disputed election. Since then, Algerian journalists report any appearance by the president  as an exclusive. Earlier this month Bouteflika made a public appearance outside his presidential residence for the first time in two years. He was in a wheelchair and didn’t say a word. There is an argument that Algerians tolerate rule by a leader who can’t speak over what they perceive as the chaos of the Arab Spring (“the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know”). It is unclear who or what kind of political system comes after Bouteflika, which is probably the way Algerian elites want it.

Mwai Kibaki, President of Kenya between 2002 and 2013, was believed to have had a number of strokes and suffered one during his first year in office. For the rest of tenure, he ruled essentially by proxy. Pundits who covered Kibaki’s 2002 election campaign (when he defeated longtime autocrat Daniel arap Moi), characterized that time as that of the “two Kibakis: the early Kibaki, engaged, focused, acute; and the later Kibaki, vague, distracted, struggling to maintain a coherent chain of thought.” John Githongo, the Kenyan whistleblower who recounted his story in Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat corroborated this. Githongo had to flee the country when halfway through setting up the transparency unit Kibaki had recruited him to lead, he was pursued by members of the executive who knew he would expose their corrupt dealings. As Wrong wrote in her book, Githongo became alarmed about the president’s mental state when upon confronting Kibaki with the fact that the corruption cases being investigated stemmed from people close to the president’s office, the evidently incoherent president congratulated him and suggested he keep up the good work. By the end of his term, Kibaki made great fodder for Kenyan satirists and comedians, falling asleep at the podium and losing his train of thought midstream while giving speeches. This was cold comfort for Kenyans worried about the health of their country.

But none of above compares to Nigeria’s President Umaru Yar’Adua. Before he died in 2010, he had not been seen in Nigeria for more than three months, leaving Africa’s most populous country without a leader and deep in constitutional crisis. He was being treated for an undisclosed illness in Saudi Arabia (his trips were classed as “medical checkups,” though there was rumor that he had a heart condition or kidney illness). Like Atta Mills, Yar’Adua tried to show in public that he was well: In 2007, as the Guardian reported, dismissed rumors of continued ill health by challenging his critics to a game of squash. By early March 2010, a cousin of Yar’Adua would confirm to Al Jazeera English that the president had returned to Nigeria. Although he wasn’t seen in public, he was “recovering and drinking tea” in the villa. Four days later, he was dead.

Zambia, Malawi and Ethiopia are some other African countries where speculation and obstruction accompanied the deaths of their heads of state. Regularly vetting a candidate’s  health and capacity to meet the physical and mental demands of the job would seem an obvious requirement. But, in the case of the average African president, it would seem, evidently, too straightforward, making for less intrigue, and discriminating against the cadre of power-hungry men who consistently put themselves before the interests of their people. Indeed, if the tradition of the last few decades is the rubric, it would be too unAfrican.

Further Reading

An unfinished project

Christian theology was appropriated to play an integral role in the justifying apartheid’s racist ideology. Black theologians resisted through a theology of the oppressed.