Absentee African presidents

Absentee African presidents

President Michael Sata ( left) with Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport on President Mugabe’s arrival in Zambia. PHOTO | AFP.

Zambians don’t know whether President Michael Sata is in India or London for treatment. In Angola, the country does not know where President Eduardo Dos Santos is. And in Cameroon, Paul Biya continues to play Houdini. So where are these African presidents and why do people like playing politics with the health of leaders?

Last month, the Zambian government released a few static pictures to prove to the public that Sata was indeed alive. It is not the first time the Zambian head of state had gone missing, though.

In February, following the African Union summit in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, he disappeared for a whole week leading to speculation of ill health. He had reportedly boarded an Emirates flight to the UK for treatment. When he returned to the country a week later, he avoided journalists who were awaiting his arrival. He then boarded a chopper to State House a few kilometers away. Noting the raised eyebrows, the government later issues a statement on national television saying Sata decided to take some rest after “working hard for Zambians.”

The statement which was read by publicity director for the ruling Patriotic Front, Mr Chanda Mfula, added that the president’s whereabouts should not be of concern since the government was functioning well and that Mr Sata was in good cheer and deserves some privacy.

Favourite destinations

Sata’s case is common across African countries if media reports are anything to go by.

Rumours are doing the rounds in Angola over President Jose Eduardo dos Santos’ absence for five weeks. He left the country for Spain’s city of Barcelona with his wife and three children without giving any explanation about the trip. The MPLA-led government has since remained tight-lipped on the same as the opposition demands a public statement be issued on the president’s whereabouts and about his health.

And if you thought the incidence of disappearing presidents is a southern African affair, then you would be wrong. In Cameroon, President Paul Biya reportedly spends about 150 to 200 days outside his country.One of his favourite destinations is Geneva in Switzerland where he stays for extended spells in five-star hotels. He also drags along a large entourage. The state back home has always described these trips as private.

Last year Ethiopia’s usually visible premier Meles Zenawi, vanished from public around view around June, and his government did not release anything regarding his condition. The opposition claimed that that the 57-year-old had died from a brain tumour.
His absence became very conspicuous as Addis Ababa hosted the AU heads of state summit to discuss the DR Congo crisis and rows between Juba and Khartoum. Meles had been expected to play a leading role in those talks. He later died of an undisclosed illness in a hospital in Brussels in August, thus giving initial rumour mills considerable credibility.

Cardiac arrest

In May 2010, Nigeria’s President Umaru Yar’Adua died after several months of treatment in Saudi Arabia when the country virtually went into political limbo, with only scanty information from the government about his health condition. All that time his supporters and handlers insisted that the incapacitated Yar’Adua was well and about.

In Ghana, John Atta Mills succumbed to cancer despite numerous official denials of his poor health by the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC).

The same happened in Gabon when Omar Bongo died in Spain following a cardiac arrest.

And just last year in April, Malawians were treated to a similar tragi-comedy when the death of Bingu wa Mutharika was concealed by those in the government who had planned to block current leader Joyce Banda from taking power.

Down in Zimbabwe, the aging leader Robert Mugabe has been making frequent trips to Singapore for what the government has always said is “normal eye check-ups” even as his health remains an intense subject of speculation.

These are just some examples on the continent where officials play fast and loose with facts regarding leaders’ state of health. It explained the never-ended rumours about such-and-such president dying, or being on his deathbed, even when this often is not the case. Many a times, power hungry opponents maximise on the situations to push their own murky agendas.

Why the health of African leaders tends to be kept a secret affair and why they like doing the disappearing act is a matter of some debate.


Prof Macharia Munene, a lecturer of International Relations, United States International University-Africa, argues it is a measure of the insecurity of African leaders. According to him, once they announce they are sick, that will invite the scheming of those who seek to wrestle them from power.

“The leaders feel that they are super humans who cannot admit that they are sick,” he told Africa Review.

Sometimes, the leaders don’t want to announce that they have gone to seek specialised treatment abroad because that will advertise the failure of their own local medical facilities.

One way out is for the citizenry to develop a demanding attitude such that when leaders fall sick, they are treated at home in public hospitals to ensure confidence in local institutions. If there is need for specialised treatment, then governments should train local people to handle such.

The electorate can also compel leaders to undergo medical check-ups before taking the office and follow with routine examinations which should be handled with transparency so that people know at all times the health status of those who govern them.

Many a power transition in Africa has been messed up because of needless secrecy about a leader’s health. This creates a dangerous power vacuum when the potentate dies without warning.