African Presidents are not immortal By JANET OTIENO | Thursday, July 25  2013 at  17:52

Recently, Zambia media outlets were abuzz with news that President Michael Sata was either dead or seriously ill.

Sata, who has cultivated a larger than life personality, had apparently disappeared from public view for weeks, prompting fevered speculation. Information minister Kennedy Sakeni had to come out to assure Zambians that the president was not only alive but was also in perfect health and indeed was holding a cabinet meeting in State House.

Many Zambians cannot have been blamed for recalling 2006, when the then government of Levy Mwanawasa insisted the ailing leader was fine and jogging in London, while in truth he was suffering from a stroke. He later died in 2008.

Unfounded rumours of African presidents dying then suddenly resurrecting are not new. We are always playing politics with issues relating to the health of our politicians.

In 2010 in Nigeria, the late Umaru Yar Adua was incapacitated, yet his supporters and handlers could not let go of power insisting that the seriously sick leader could still rule.

In Ghana, when John Atta Mills was battling cancer, the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) rubbished speculation about his ill health, accusing the opposition of just being power hungry.

In Gabon, Omar Bongo died in Spain following a cardiac arrest preceded by numerous official denials of his poor health.

Last year in April, Malawi was treated to the same drama after the death of Bingu wa Mutharika was concealed by those in the government who had planned to block current leader Joyce Banda’s ascension to State House.

Normal checkup

Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe’s health has also been a subject of speculation due to his several trips to Singapore for medical check-up. The government has always said that it is just a normal eye check-up. In Algeria, speculation about Abdelaziz Bouteflika flickers.

The examples are numerous, and this is why African governments need to understand that even though a leader’s health is a very delicate matter, it needs to be discussed openly.

To achieve calmness and dissuade national anxiety, denials should not be an option. Presidents are not immortal, much as some of their handlers would have the people believe so.

Perhaps it is time we, like the Americans, compelled presidential aspirants to undergo medical check-ups to ensure they have a clean bill of health before taking office. Once in office, routine check-ups should be mandatory and handled openly.

Citizens have the right to know the health status of their leaders. The ability to discharge the duties is a matter of national importance and should not be shrouded in officialdom.

It is also key to prepare a country for an eventuality in case the worst happens. This would encourage the smooth transition of power without creating a vacuum and endangering national security.

Conveying such messages to the people with tact ends all ill-intentioned speculation. Of course, we are good Africans, we never celebrate one’s illness lest we are blamed for bewitching them.

Email: ajotieno@ke.nationmedia.com / Twitter: JanetOtieno