Is Power Too Sweet For Ailing African Leaders To Step Down?
BY Gershom Ndhlovu
May 18, 2014

There have been rumours, innuendoes and even insinuations regarding the health, or the lack of it, of Zambia’s President Michael Chilufya Sata, in office since September 2011. These have been spread by the largely unregulated online media that the Patriotic Front (PF) government is intent on controlling or even shutting down altogether.

The government has not particularly responded to these rumours apart from issuing one-liner statements refuting the stories about the health status of the 76 year-old head of state and veteran politician.

However, when Sata appeared at a May 1 Labour Day parade to receive a traditional salute from workers in the land, the appearance was very brief and only accompanied by a one minute address before getting into his motorcade for a three kilometre drive back to the presidential palace, a lot of people were convinced the President was not well.

This prompted youthful president of the opposition National Restoration Party, better known by its acronym NAREP, Elias Chipimo Jr, to suggest that Sata, a man who has journeyed from being the capital’s Governor under First Republican President Kenneth Kaunda, to being Cabinet Minister under Second President Frederick Chiluba even ending up as the third highest ranking official as Minister Without Portfolio then, to now head of state, to scale down on his demanding schedule.

Chipimo received a rap on the knuckles from the Chief Government Spokesman Joseph Katema who is also Minister of Information and Broadcasting who told the younger and urbane politician that he was not a medical doctor to go about declaring people ill or otherwise.

Katema’s response may have sounded laughable but the presidential palace in particular and government in general have not handed issues surrounding Sata’s health very well from the time he became President.

In previous administrations, the presidential palace and government announced presidential trips each time the leaders travelled outside the country, stating the destination, the purpose of the trip, duration and senior officials in the delegation. In most cases where the president had gone to seek treatment abroad, it had equally been stated except once in the instance of the late President Levy Mwanawasa when his then Vice President Lupando Mwape told the nation that he (Mwanawasa) was well and jogging on the streets of London. It emerged that he had suffered a minor stroke and receiving treatment in a London Hospital.

In the case of Sata, these trips have been secretive from the outset and he has only been ferreted by the curious online media. In one case, it took an Indian newspaper to report that President Sata was receiving treatment in a hospital in that country.

Understandably so, these trips could be a secret from the fact that Sata not only pushed for the setting up of a medical committee to probe the health of one of his predecessors as provided for in the constitution and, for obvious reasons failed, but also criticized the treatment of leaders abroad when local health facilities were in a poor state.

The concern by citizens on the health of a sitting president is justified considering that Zambia has lost a sitting president and a former president through illness before. In fact, Sata himself as an opposition leader used to nag government on the illness of President Mwanawasa who collapsed on an international trip in Egypt and died a few weeks later in a Paris Hospital in 2008. Sata would say in his native Bemba language that “a ruler’s illness shakes the nation.”

Ironically, Sata as an opposition leader who had been a bitter critic of Mwanawasa, was once rushed to a South African hospital when he fell gravely ill from a suspected heart condition. When he was discharged, he thanked Mwanawasa for saving his life by enabling his evacuation. From that episode Sata and Mwanwasa who had not seen eye to eye from the time the latter was Vice President in the early years of Zambia’s return to plural politics, reconciled with him until his death in August 2008.

Maybe the question to ask is why African heads of state tend to stick to power even with failing health. Cases abound of many a head of state who has vehemently denied being ill but with fatal results. Recent examples are that of Nigerian President Umaru Yar’adua, Gabonese President Omar Bongo, Malawian President Bingu Mutharika, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and other African leaders who all denied being ill at one time or another until they could not pretend to be well any more with—excuse the pun—deadly consequences.

Most of these leaders are rushed to the best medical facilities in Europe for the simple reason that they neglect facilities in their own countries to which the majority poor cannot even get so much of simple pain killers.

The late Mutharika famously joked that he forgot his coffin in an Asian country where it had been rumoured that he had gone for treatment and had died there. He uttered these words when he landed at the country’s Chileka International Airport. Not too long after, he succumbed to the cold hand of death when his heart gave in. Even then, the Malawian government tried to mask his passing telling the nation that he was being rushed to South Africa for treatment.

The rumours about the well-being and death of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe are never ending and he jokes about “having died and resurrected more times than Jesus Christ” each time he resurfaces from his frequent and sometimes lengthy disappearances from the country for “holidays” mostly in Asia.

Maybe it is a question of power being sweet and it being sweeter in Africa, but African leaders could learn from South Africa’s first black President Nelson Mandela who assumed power at an advanced age of 76 in 1994. He retired just after one term. He lived for nearly 15 years after he left office when he could have continued for another term before finally retiring. Why can’t other leaders learn lessons from the Great Madiba?

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