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Opinions of Tuesday, 26 December 2006

Columnist: Kennedy, Arthur Kobina

Leadership And Health

A few weeks ago, our newspapers and radio stations were agog with speculations regarding the health of NDC Presidential candidate, John Atta-Mills. These speculations followed his reported trips to China and South Africa for healthcare and his loss of significant weight.

Indeed, it was reported that some of his opponents had tried to make his health a campaign issue. When he finally spoke, some were skeptical of his explanation. This is an important issue not only for Presidential candidates but for all our leaders. It’s importance even at the parliamentary level in underlined by the number of MP’s who have died since the 2004 elections, some after prolonged illness of which their constituents were ignorant.

This episode in the NDC primary leads to some questions.

First, does a Presidential candidate have a responsibility to make his health records public?

Second, how much is the nation entitled to know about a candidate’s health? Third, to what extent can a candidate’s rivals make his/her health an issue? Fourth, will an over-ambitious candidate or President, put his interest ahead the nation’s interest and contest for power or hang onto office when his health cannot bear the burdens of office even if this harms the national interest? The history of the role of health in politics and leadership is a fascinating one. Our own Prime Minister Dr Kofi Abrefa Busia was in England for medical care when he was overthrown in 1972. Also, many experts believe that the Iranian revolution that replaced the Shah with the Ayatollahs in 1979 was made possible by the monarch’s illness and his resultant ineffectiveness. Next door to us in Cote D’Ivoire, the aging and sick Houphouet Boigny may have doomed his nation to civil war by failing to organize a transition when he was healthy and could have been a stabilizing force. Of course, as fate would have it, the infirmity and subsequent early demise of General Abacha had a very constructive effect on the course of democracy in Nigeria. Earlier, in 1972, Cameroonian President Ahidjo handed over to Paul Biya believing that he had a terminal illness. In his view, that handover was probably premature.

The significance of health in political leadership is seen both in the West and East as well. In the United States, the only man elected four times to the Presidency, Franklin Roosevelt was paralyzed but the American public never knew about it. In 1972, Senator Egleton, after nomination for Vice-President on the Democratic ticket had to leave the ticket amid confusion when it was revealed that he had suffered from depression earlier in his life. Indeed, behind the iron curtain, the health of Soviet rulers was a closely guarded state secret. When US President Reagan was once asked why he had not met a Soviet leader earlier, he said “they kept dying on me” referring to the quick deaths of Brezhnev, Andropov and Chernenko. Even as I write, there are a lot of speculations surrounding the health of Presidents Castro of Cuba and Conte of Guinea. The health issue is compounded by the fact that sometimes, a ruler’s health may compromise his/her nation’s interest. For example, Woodrow Wilson and FDR , both American Presidents, were later revealed to have been very sick in the end and may not have been at their most effective before their death. The US later had a constitutional amendment to deal with the transfer of power in time of disability. Perhaps, one of the most dramatic illustrations of how a leader’s health affects the fate of his nation occurred in Brazil in 1985 when Tancredo Nevus was elected President and was hospitalized with terminal illness the night before his inauguration. Sarney, his unpopular running mate was sworn in to the consternation of many Brazilians. To return home for my final example, during the twenty-year reign of ex-President Rawlings, there were periodic rumours, never confirmed officially, about the state of his health and its bearing on his temperament and effectiveness.

Now, here are my answers . First, while a presidential candidate does not have an obligation to put all the gory details of his/her health before the public, he/she has an obligation to honestly inform the public that he does not have any illness or infirmity that may make it impossible for him to discharge the functions of the office. Second, the nation is entitled to know enough from a reputable authority that those who offer themselves as candidates for high office can stand up to the physical and mental rigors of the office. In this regard, I believe that when there are legitimate reasons for concern, the parties will carry out reasonable good faith due diligence on behalf of the nation.

Third, I believe that a candidate’s rivals are generally not a very good source or authority on his health. Since they stand to benefit from whatever information may be revealed, it will be best for all if such information comes from independent and credible sources. Given the fact that illness and death can strike any of us at any time, the gleeful revelation of another person’s illness for political purposes is unseemly and inappropriate.

In this light, newspapers and radio stations should exercise circumspection in how they report such information since a false report may do incalculable damage to a person or the nation.

Fourth, it is possible, since politicians are human, for a person to put his ambitions ahead of the national interest and vie for an office whose functions he cannot discharge if elected or hold on to an office he is no longer healthy enough to hold.

This is one of the issues that require that the interests and privacy rights of some individuals should be carefully weighed against the public interest. It has no easy solution.

While a candidate’s health is of vital interest to the nation, this issue should be approached in a manner that respects candidates’ privacy and meets the nation’s needs at the same time. The best approach to this is through a spirit of selflessness and patriotism by all concerned, candidates, their friends and family, doctors and the press! Let us pray that our nation will always have citizens who will not hesitate to put her interest ahead of their own. The only US President to ever resign the office, Richard Nixon once said prophetically “Sometimes, one must save the Presidency from the President”. Let us pray that whenever necessary, our nation will never want for men and women, Presidents included who will, acting constitutionally, always put country ahead of self.

May our nation grow from strength to strength.



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