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When an African president falls ills, dies- from

When an African president falls ill, dies: lessons from Ghana
By Sishuwa Sishuwa
Mon 06 Aug. 2012, 06:00 CAT   [3316 Reads, 0 Comment(s)]
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Sishuwa Sishuwa
ON the afternoon of Tuesday, July 25, 2012, Ghana's President John Atta Mills ceased to breathe after a long battle with cancer of the throat. Mills's health had been a subject of intense debate in Ghana even before he assumed office in 2009.

He went missing from the public view for over three weeks, prompting speculation from many Ghanaians that their President was unwell. Opposition parties argued that Ghanaians had a right to know the true health condition of their leader.

However, government officials, who never officially confirmed Mills' illness, dismissed speculation about his health as nonsense propagated by opposition elements impatient to wrest power from the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC).

Returning from the United States of America, where he had recently been flown for medical check-ups (also largely concealed by government officials), Mills himself declared that he was 'as fit as a fiddle' and was ready to continue serving as President. To some Ghanaians, therefore, Mills's death came as a huge shock since they had repeatedly been informed and assured that he was fit, well and in possession of sound health.

Many of them actually first learnt about his death from foreign media outlets rather than local sources. The manner in which Mills's illness was handled is therefore far from satisfactory and provides significant lessons for Ghana itself and several other African countries.

The first important lesson is that the illness and death of Atta Mills should teach African countries to start discussing difficult and delicate national issues such as the health of presidents with much more transparency and openness. Throughout the continent, a common attitude towards serving leaders who are unwell is that of denial, tolerance and pretending that all is well, at the expense of such leaders' lives.

Most African leaders who are sick are usually unprepared to step down on account of ill health. The failure by the Ghanaian government to inform the nation about the true condition of President Mills's health should be understood in the broader context. All over Africa, the attitude towards the sickness of Heads of State seems to be that of a taboo subject or state secret.

In August 2008, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa died in France, but his illness was earlier denied and even concealed by government officials. In December 2008, Lansana Conté, President of Guinea, died in France after a long illness, which was shrouded in secrecy and kept away from Guineans by government officials for over a month.

In June 2009, Gabonese President Omar Bongo died in Spain following a heart attack and numerous denials from the government about his ill health. In May 2010, Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua died in Saudi Arabia but his illness was concealed in secrecy.

Early this year, Guinea-Bissau's President Malam Bacai Sanha died in hospital in France, but no information was released about his health in Guinea-Bissau. More recently, Malawi's Bingu wa Mutharika died of a suspected heart attack after his ill-health was denied for a long time by government officials.

There is need to change the way we, as Africans, deal with the question of the illness of our leaders and to let courage and essential truths, not fear and blind sympathy, guide us in moments of uncertainty, anxiety or crises. Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez has been unwell for some time now.

But he has never hidden his sickness from the Venezuelan people, informing them about his regular trips to Cuba for medical review. Like the rest of us, presidents are not immortal and have the right to fall sick and seek medical attention. But there is no need to conceal their ailments to the nation.

The health of a Head of State or Prime Minister is a matter of national importance and it is cruel punishment to deny citizens the right to know the exact condition of their leaders.

It is time our African leaders found sensible and humane but honest ways of conveying their health condition when need arises. While the illness of an ordinary citizen may have no serious bearing on the country's economic and political facets, the health of a President of any African country has.

The presidency is a national institution and little gets done without its involvement. Updating the nation honestly on the health of its leader prepares it for any eventualities, as opposed to the anxiety that silence and speculation generate.

Another important lesson that African countries can draw from Ghana is that it may be a good idea to start treating health as an important consideration for public office. Until now, the health of presidential candidates in several African countries has never weighed heavily on the electoral scale of considerations of many voters and indeed on the campaign issues of contestants for presidential office.

Mills was doing a fine job and many Ghanaians were so impressed with the economic turnaround the country witnessed during his reign that he was virtually assured of a second term.

The fact that the ruling NDC had just nominated him to stand for a second term and that he was almost guaranteed another four years in office despite his poor health suggests that Africans do not take the illnesses of their leaders seriously.

Even before he came to power, it was widely known that Mills was not well. Yet, Ghanaians ignored all that and went ahead to elect him as president in 2009.

Since he knew of his poor health, one would have also expected Mills himself to candidly convey to Ghanaians the news about what he was suffering from and the nature and seriousness of his illness. Admitting that he was unwell would have won him the sympathy of the Ghanaian public and rallied the nation behind its leader in prayers and goodwill wishes.

It would have also disarmed political opponents who might have sought to make political fortune out of the President's illness. It would have further ensured that, upon election, the President worked at a rate he could easily manage and reduced the burden of expectations that Ghanaians thrust on him.

While it is incumbent upon our individual African presidents to summon and gather the courage to disclose their ailments to national citizens, the latter should also take interest in examining the health conditions of aspiring candidates for presidential office and consider this point in their electoral choices.

It is time we defined and enshrined sound health as an important qualification for public office in our respective African national constitutions, as many of our constitutions are quite tolerant of sick leaders.

All presidential candidates should be subjected, by law, to thorough medical examinations prior to nominations for elections while serving presidents should undergo routine public medical check-ups throughout the course of their terms.

We cannot afford to be losing fellow citizens on account of illness, worsened by the stresses of power, which take toll on their sometimes already frail health. No continent in the recent past has experienced the death of incumbent presidents as Africa has had, and it is time we took this issue seriously.

The Ghanaian experience also teaches African countries about the need to invest in progressive clauses such as the running mate to smoothly resolve a problem of succession in an event of a vacancy in the office of president.

Article 60 (6) of the current Constitution of Ghana states that: "Whenever the President dies, resigns or is removed from office, the Vice-President shall assume office as President for the unexpired term of office of the President with effect from the date of the death, resignation or removal of the President".

Thanks to this article, John Dramani Mahama, who until Mills's death was Republican vice-president, was smoothly sworn in as his successor within hours of his predecessor's death, taking the presidential oath at an emergency parliamentary session.

Ghana avoided a costly presidential by-election, saving huge resources in the process, and avoiding the divisive consequences of uncertain succession procedures.

Countries like Zambia, which are making their national constitutions, should note the importance of the principle of a running mate in a constitutional democracy.

Another minor but significant lesson is the need for African governments and countries to invest in the improvement health care and institutions. It is fascinating that most African leaders have died outside the continent - in Europe, Middle East or Asia - while those who have returned alive like Mills have usually not lived long after their return.

This means that the capacity for health care is still grossly limited across the continent, something that should be a cause for grave concern for any wise leader.

Many decades after independence, shouldn't African countries be self-sufficient in providing first class and quality primary health care to its citizens, including its leaders? When it suits them, we often hear the rouble-rousing rhetoric about sovereignty from many African leaders.

But is it not Level A security risk for a Head of State to be in non-sovereign hands for her or his health care? Does this vulnerability suggest that African independence for now is only on paper; only a historical reminder of what the continent ought to be? When will Africa learn to learn?


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