Feature Article of Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Columnist: Debrah, Frank S.

Routine medical checkup, a sign of impending grave trouble

By Frank S. Debrah

Barely one month after the ‘untimely’ death of Ghana’s President Mills, another African leader, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has also met his ‘untimely’ demise. Mr. Meles passed away last Monday in a Belgian hospital while undergoing ‘routine medical checkup’. Like the former Ghanaian leader, Mr. Meles’ failing health had been a matter of secrecy for several months. He disappeared from the public eye in June and failed to partake in a scheduled summit in Addis Ababa last month, leading to speculation in Ethiopia that he is gravely ill. But the government’s communication chief, Mr Bereket Simon, rubbished the speculation stating that the prime minister’s “health condition is very good and stable” and that Mr. Meles is merely “taking some rest.”

Mr. Meles and Mr. Atta Mills are just the most recent African leaders to have died in office with undisclosed illness that merely required ‘routine medical checkup’ in Europe or the United States. Around the same time as Mr. Meles vanished from public view last June, Mr. Atta Mills was also nowhere to be found. Like in Ethiopia, rumours swirled in Ghana that Mr. Atta Mills is gravely ill and perhaps unfit to seek re-election. Some radio stations in Ghana even hastily proclaimed Mr. Atta Mills dead, forcing his administration to come out with a public statement that the president is alive but travelling to the United States to seek ‘routine medical checkup’.

As in Ethiopia, the Ghana government’s communication team launched a vociferous attack on any suggestion by the opposition and the media that the president may be unwell. In Ghana, Mr. Atta Mills himself threatened to expose the health status of his opponents if they persisted on taking issues with his health. And to display his vigour to Ghanaians, Mr. Atta Mills jogged at Ghana’s Kotoka International Airport upon his return from New York. He later announced that his American doctors had given him a clean bill of health. The following month, though, Mr Atta Mills died at a Military Hospital in Ghana at the age of 68. In Ethiopia, Mr. Meles is said to have been responding very well to treatment until he developed a “sudden infection” on Sunday and died at 23:40 on Monday at the age of 57.

Like Ghanaians, Ethiopians are shocked to hear the sudden death of their leader; men whom the public have been told were only undergoing ‘routine medical checkup.’ Is this something that has only happened in Ghana and Ethiopia? The answer sadly is no. As unfortunate and disgusting as citizens find it, hiding the health conditions of the leader from the public until they die appears to be the rule, rather than the exception in the African continent. And if you’re not persuaded by the examples in Ghana and Ethiopia, let me draw your attention to other similar events on the continent.

While in office, the late President of Nigeria, Mr. Umaru Yar’Adua, was rumoured to have grown so weak from ill health that he once collapsed on an airport tarmac in Togo while on a state visit to that country. In order to hide the situation quickly, Mr. Yar’Adua was alleged to have been carried away on the shoulders of his military bodyguard with his body covered by a cloth. Throughout his stay in office, Mr. Yar’Adua’s political apparatchiks organized an elaborate scheme to hide the true state of his health. As noted in a book written by Mr. Yar’Adua’s spokesman, Olusegun Adeyini, Nigerian state television was ordered to film only half of Mr. Yar’Adua’s face when the other half was swollen. Mr. Yar’Adua himself tried to dismiss rumours of continued ill health by challenging his opponents to a game of squash. The elaborate deception continued until Nigeria was thrown into a state of constitutional crisis when Mr. Yar’Adua disappeared from the country to seek ‘routine medical checkup’ in Saudi Arabia. A month or so later he was dead. Enter Guinea, where the late Guinea strongman Lansana Conte’s health was the subject of national debate for years before his ‘untimely death’ in 2008. Prior to his demise, rumours swirled around Guinea every now and then that he was dead only for him to come out, deny his death and then proceed to show Guineans how strong he is on national television. Almost a week before his death, a Guinean journalist was arrested, detained and perhaps tortured for publishing a frail picture of Conte struggling to stand up. One of Conte’s communication chiefs later went on television to assure Guineans that the president was healthy. And to prove a point, the government forced the newspaper to publish an image of Conte which showed the leader in excellent health.

Last but not the least, hours before the death of Omar Bongo of Gabon – one of the longest serving and most corrupt presidents in African history – his prime minister, Jean Eyeghe Ndong, insisted that the president was “well” despite numerous rumours in Gabon that he was fatally sick and near his death bed. Bongo was said to be undergoing ‘routine medical checkup’ in Spain until he died. Then there was also the speculative ill health and eventual death of Malawi’s Bingu wa Muthrika in April 2012, which has not been told here but whose plot does not deviate much from the ones mentioned.

Why the theatrics and outright public deception about the health of leaders on this continent before they die? I don’t know the answer but it appears that there is a culturally-induced perception across Africa that leaders do not get sick and, when they do as all humans do, you better not admit it in public much less the disease that they are suffering from.

In authoritarian countries like Guinea or Gabon, I can understand the rational to ward off the threat of a military coup if the dictator is perceived to be vulnerable. Dictators tend to stay in office; irrespective of how sick they are, until they die. Out of self preservation they fear handing over power no matter how grave their health circumstances are. But in mature democracies like Ghana, I find it distasteful that the Ghanaian public were lied to and deceived the way they were about the health of Mr. Atta Mills as if Ghana is some tin-pot dictatorship. I am not a member and have never been a member of any political party in Ghana, so I can say it with genuine sincerity that I do not believe that Mr. Atta Mills was so power-drunk that he did not want to leave office to concentrate on his health. Still, why didn’t he do so?