There’s an African proverb that says, food you will not eat you do not boil. It’s applicable to African leaders who have a penchant for snubbing their health facilities and flying miles away at whim to have their mysterious ailments treated. They leave behind a failed public health system where citizens bear the brunt. Hospitals lack drugs, poor infrastructures, doctors have poor remuneration packages and nurses can go for months without receiving their salaries. Talking about the leaders ill health is an offense and forbidden in some countries which can attract punishment. But why do african leaders conceal their health status?
Malawi – Mbingu Mutharika
On the day that Mbingu Mutharika would die, nothing seemed unusual. His food tester as routine had sampled his breakfast thus giving it a poison-free bill. A few hours later during a morning meeting, the president collapsed after suffering a heart attack and died in an ambulance on his way to a hospital in the capital of Lilongwe. 3 conflicting dates of his death were given, 5th, 6th and 7th April of 2012. However, Malawians didn’t know what was happening and no statement went out about his condition or death. Rumors swept across the country prompting six ministers to hold a late-night news conference a day after Mutharika’s death to insist he was still alive.
It was International media that broke the news of Mutharika’s death on 5 April. By this time, Malawians had heard about it on social media. The state let its highly guarded secret out on 7th April when it confirmed that indeed the president was dead. On one side were some locals who had little empathy for the former president. A Lilongwe businessman Chimwemwe Phiri said, “We know he is dead and unfortunately he died at a local, poor hospital which he never cared about – no drugs, no power,” and on the other side Mutharikas family and supporters who claimed that his death was by the hand of man. Kondwani Nankhumwa who was Information Minister at that time claimed, ” If you asked the former First Lady (Callista), she would tell you that Mbingu woke up very energetic that day. He took a bath and undertook all the activities normally only to die in his office, while working. We say God is the author of death, but Mbingu’s death was the work of an individual and that individual should be exposed.”
Mbingus predecessor, President Joyce Banda instituted a commission of inquiry to probe the death, a move that angered Mutharikas family who dissociated themselves from the commission terming it as “satanic machinations” intended to advance the personal and political agendas of Bandas administration. This was the same group that had attempted to block Banda from ascending to power after her fallout with Mutharika’s ruling DPP party in 2010 due to succession differences. In 2013, the commission of inquiry to investigate circumstantes surrounding Mutharikas death was released. The 105 page report detailed the chaos and drama that surrounded the death of the former president.
It was reported that doctors had been forced to resuscitate him the whole day, after he had collapsed, despite it being clear that he was already dead. These orders came from Peter Mutharika, the presidents younger brother, who was being groomed to succeed him. This ‘life saving’ procedure resulted in battered ribs with blood oozing from his nose and mouth. The ruse continued for 2 days as the younger Mutharika stalled for time in order to ascend to Presidency. An air ambulance commissioned to fly the body to South Africa declined on grounds that it didn’t have clearance to transport a dead body and that the pilots flying hours for the day had been exhausted. It took a joint intervention of both the Zimbabwean and South African embassies for the trip to be approved. By the time the body was being flown to South Africa for ‘treatment’ under the guise of power outage in the Lilongwe hospital, it was already decomposing. A tube in his mouth and medical equipment were attached to his body to create an impression that he was ‘gravely ill’. In South Africa the body was taken to the morgue after a 15 minute stop over at the One Military hospital.
When the South African President Jacob Zuma realized what was happening, he demanded that the people of Malawi be told the truth about their president or else he was going to do it himself. 48 hours later the announcement was made which followed the swearing in of Banda as the incoming president. Those who saw Mutharikas body as it lay in state say that it was heavily made up to conceal damage from resuscitation and decomposition.
Zimbabwe – Robert Mugabe
It was only after his death that a state owned newspaper revealed that the founding president had advanced cancer. Confusion and drama marred his burial arrangements with the government and his family proposing different sites for his final resting place. Mrs Mugabe initially wanted her late husband interred at the Blue Roof grounds of their Harare mansion. Her efforts were thwarted by the Harare City Council who said that the land was not a cemetery. It would also emerge later that the title deed to this luscious multi million home, complete with wildlife and a lake was owned by the ruling Zanu PF party.
The state on the other hand expected to bury Mugabe at a monument for national heroes, Heroes Acre, in Zimbabwe’s capital Harare. This is the preferred resting place for top government officials and many top heroes of Zimbabwe’s liberation war. It seemed a truce had been reached when elders and government officials agreed on this site to bury the first president of Zimbabwe. Construction of his mausoleum had even begun before the work was abandoned after Grace reportedly fell out with the elders and chiefs accusing them of siding with the current president Emmerson Mnangagwa’s preferred burial site. She did not want her husbands’ ousters to commission his burial which would have happened had he been buried at the Heroes Acre. Ironically Mugabe’s first wife, Sally, died of a kidney ailment in 1992 at the country’s main referral hospital, Parirenyatwa’s private ward and was buried at the Heroes Acre.
There were conflicting claims about his last wishes with some saying that he preferred to be buried next to his mother at his his rural home town of Zvimba, with only close relatives in attendance. However a family spokesman, Mugabes nephew Leo Mugabe, asserted that there wasn’t enough space there which later proved to be untrue. The bitter disputes ended when he was finally buried at Zvimba in a tamper proof steel-lined coffin under a layer of concrete to prevent people from ‘stealing his body parts for rituals’. Mugabes official funeral service had been held two weeks before his burial in a half empty stadium and attended by 11 heads of state including president uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya.
Nigeria – Muhammadu Buhari
Since he took office in 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari’s health has been a sticking point to his country men. He has travelled to the U.K. severally for frequent medical checks and in 2017 he stayed in London for several months while being treated for an undisclosed ailment. Officials had initially announced that the trip was a short vacation that would include “routine medical tests.” His long absence led his citizens to speculate about his health with his handlers being accused over non-disclosure of the situation. This prompted Buhari to send an assuring audio message in a feeble voice from London that all was well. He even posted photographs of himself meeting Nigerian officials there to prove he was alive although he looked much thinner and frail. Upon his return to Nigeria, he claimed that he was not ‘so sick’.
During one of his trips to London, Buhari was treated for an ‘ear infection’, according to government officials. This angered critics who wondered why such a simple ailment couldn’t be treated at the special presidential hospital, State House Clinic, the best in the country. At one time social media was awash with a bizarre rumor that the President had a clone or body double to fool Nigerians that all was well yet he was actually ‘dead’. Nigeria’s opposition party, People’s Democractic Party (PDP), spokesman Kola has previously urged the president to disclose his health condition. “We need full disclosure about the president’s health. He needs to be honest with Nigerians to say he his unwell. He can’t travel for an official meeting to the US and sneak into London to see his doctor, then tell Nigerians it was a technical stopover due to flight issues.” He urged him to step down on medical grounds, “If you are not fit enough to govern the people, you resign, so that at least a capable hand can come in.”
Nigerians fears are based on past experience when officials close to former president, Umaru Yar’Adua persistently lied to the public and other government officials that he was in good shape yet his health was failing. Yar’Adua would disappear for months to seek medical treatment for an undisclosed ailment. His predecessor, Olusegun Obasanjo at one time called him live on national television to enquire whether he was ‘dead’. Everyone heard Yar’Adua’s laughter and his reply that he was alive.On being questioned about his health status, upon returning from one of his many medical trips, he at one time challenged his critics to a game of squash in an endeavor to end speculations about his health. He died in office, leaving a power vacuum that caused a constitutional crises. His inner circle clung to power and sought to prevent the then Vice President Goodluck Jonathan from acting as president.
Nigeria – Stella Obasanjo
When the death of Nigeria’s former first lady, Stella Obasanjo, wife to then sitting president Olusegun Obasanjo was announced in 2005, conspiracy theories swirled. Some claimed that she had been offered as sacrifice by her husband in order for his job to be successful. An insinuation Obasanjo vehemently denied saying, “That is how wicked and satanic some Nigerians can be in their rumours and mischief.” Others claimed that she had perished in a Nigerian plane crash that had killed 103 of its 110 passengers. Some quarters assigned her a mysterious illnesses she had been secretly managing, while others stated that she had been clubbed by her husband in fury after a fight over his numerous and highly publicized extramarital affairs.
After the rumour mill had ground to a halt, the truth was revealed. Stella Obasanjo, a political activist in her own rights had travelled to Spain in search of beauty and to live up to the tag of how a First Lady should look. The cosmetic surgery procedure she would undertake known as elective liposuction to remove her stomach fat cost her a neat sum of money and her life. The doctor operating on her misplaced a tube designed for a liposuction procedure into her abdominal cavity. She sustained a punctured colon, lacerated liver and died two days after the surgery. The Nigerian authorities initially did not admit that the country’s first lady had died under a plastic surgeons knife, thus giving way to the rumor mills. The former President admitted he had no prior knowledge of the nip and tuck procedure that led to his wife’s death and only found out after her burial that she had planned the cosmetic surgery as part of her 60th birthday anniversary. The doctor was made to pay damages, which was collected by Olu Obasanjo, Stella’s son, and his licence was withdrawn temporarily.
Algeria – Abdelaziz Bouteflika
Algerian leader Abdelaziz Bouteflika has had persistent health woes leading to several periods in hospital over more than a decade. Having first come to power in 1999, he was hospitalized in 2005 and again in 2006 for gastric ulcer hemorrhage but the rumor mills said he was critically ill with stomach cancer. Journalists were threatened with incarceration and censorship for reporting on his health status. In 2013 Bouteflika was weakened by a stroke which affected his mobility and speech thus rendering him invisible and earning him the moniker ‘ghost president’ due to his rare public appearances made in a wheelchair. It was unclear how much of official decisions he was making or if others who did not want to give up influence were doing so in his name.
Many Algerians were baffled by how their 82-year-old president, who suffered a stroke years ago and could barely walk or talk, could run the country. In April 2019 he shocked them even further by declaring that he would run for fifth term prompting protests which made him back down and resign. He’d won the 2014 elections without campaigning despite being absent from the campaign trail physically. Currently little is known about his daily life other than he lives with his sister, is surrounded by a medical team and only receives few visitors. He is still confined to his wheelchair and remains speechless.
Cameroon – Paul Biya
Cameroon’s Paul Biya is another African president who has kept his health status a closely guarded secret. Biya regularly seeks treatment abroad and has come under fire lately for his absence from the national stage as the central African country faces a coronavirus crisis. In his 37 years in power, Cameroonians have become accustomed to their presidents long absences, mainly because of poor health. When an opposition figure Maurice Kamto, condemned the president’s silence asking the National Assembly to establish a vacancy of the presidential office and holding of elections consequently, a photo of Biya surfaced posing for the cameras after talks with the French ambassador, he however did not speak to the press.
Photoshop scandals involving the president damaged his trust when an obviously manipulated photo of Biya at a funeral for fallen soldiers appeared on the presidential website in 2015. He was actually in Europe and not at the event.The 87-year-old spent a third of his time overseas in 2006 and 2009, according to one widely shared report from the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, an international group of investigative journalists. Just like the Algerian former president Bouteflika, It’s not an uncommon refrain to hear Cameroonians lament the fact that they have a ghost president too.
Ghana – John Evans Atta Mills
Ghanas 12th president, Dr. John Evans Atta Mills, had been suffering ill health which had been subject to speculation over the years he ruled. At one time rumors swirled when he sought treatment in the US several times with some media outlets even announcing that he had died during one of the visits. Radios were held closely to the ears of some citizens in the streets of Accra as they waited for more information about their presidents ‘death’. The FM radio stations even played funeral hymns. Upon his return from the ‘dead’, Mills did a jog at the airport to prove that he was as fit as a fiddle and went on to lecture those behind the fake news. He stated it was clear that some persons did not want him alive.
The president would eventually die in July 2012 at the 37 Military Hospital, Accra in what government officials said was a short sudden illness. However an aide contradicted this and said Mills had suffered ill health days earlier. Mills’ brother, Dr. Cadman Mills, disclosed during the burial that the late president had died from massive hemorrhagic stroke complications resulting from brain aneurysm. Another account was that he suffered from progressive throat cancer which affected his eyesight and ability to hear well. To date the real course of his death is unknown.
Zambia – Levy Mwanawasa and Michael Sata
Two Zambian presidents Levy Mwanawasa and Michael Sata died out of their country while seeking treatment. Their ailments were shrouded in secrecy and government officials insisted that they were in stable condition. Mwanawasa suffered 2 strokes one in 2006 and the other 2008. He reassured his citizens that he was fit the first time this happened. After his second stroke there were rumors about his death which were refuted by government officials. He however died several weeks later. His predecessor Sata stopped appearing in the public which was strange for an extrovert like himself. He died of an undisclosed illness in a private hospital in London in October 2014.
Ethiopia – Meles Zenawi
It was clear that all was not well when Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi Asres failed to attend an AU summit his country was hosting. Speculation over his health mounted in the weeks that followed with the government promising to clarify the issue at a later date. Zenawi died at a Belgian hospital in August of 2012 and the government officially announced the cause of his death as a result of sudden infection developed overnight after undergoing a minor procedure in a hospital in Brussels, Belgium. Unconfirmed reports however state that the late prime minister suffered from a brain tumor cancer.
Guinea Bissau – Malam Bacai Sanha
For the time Guinea Bissau’s Malam Bacai Sanhá was president, he became more popular for his frequent visits to hospital than for his executive duties. Government officials often explained his numerous trips to France, Senegale and Portugal as routine medical checkups. The nature of Sanha’s illness was not disclosed but he was diabetic and had suffered several health complications before dying at 64 years of age in a Paris hospital in January 2012.
Gabon – Omar Bongo
Initially when he traveled to Spain, the second president of Gabon, Omar Bongo, through government officials explained that he was taking time off his official duties to mourn the death of his wife. They said that he was in intense emotional shock but later admitted that he was undergoing a medical checkup. He died in Spain on June 8, 2009, of cardiac arrest as a result of suffering years of colorectal cancer.
As long as African leaders have an option, to fly overseas at whim for treatment, the state of primary and public healthcare will always be at the bottom of agendas across countries which will eventually cost them economically. With the covid-19 coronavirus outbreak, the leaders are now being forced to address the healthcare and service delivery systems they’ve long neglected. Professor Adekeye Adebajo, director of the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation at the University of Johannesburg says, “African leaders often give the impression that the health of their countries is tied to their own personal health, and what is ailing a leader is often treated as a state secret.” That could explain the reason why they don’t want to relinquish power on account of being terminally ill. It’s clear that most hide their health status in a bid to retain power of office and seek election or reelection.Yet inorder to make sound decisions for their countries they must be of physically emotionally and socially competent.