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Leaders’ health in the public interest

ONCE again another African head of state, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, has died bringing the mortality of our leaders in the spotlight after the death of three other leaders this year alone namely: Guinea-Bissau’s Malam Bacai Sanha, Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika and Ghana’s John Atta Mills. Zenawi died on Monday in an overseas hospital of an undisclosed disease after weeks of government silence and obfuscation on his condition and whereabouts.

The Ethiopian state media had been busy claiming Zenawi was getting better after rumours circulated through social media that the premier was gravely ill.

Zenawi’s case is not unique. Most African governments whose leaders have died in office have have tried to manage the succession issue with a veil of secrecy which creates needless uncertainty as well as alarm and despondency.
The death of Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua is one such example in which his aides even kept then Vice-President Goodluck Jonathan out of the loop in as far as the former’s health was concerned, creating a power vacuum in the volatile west African nation.

Since 2008, Africa has lost eight heads of state, smashing the aura of invincibility which they cultivated in the past. They are human after all and there is no point pretending otherwise.

What is needed now is to strengthen the mechanisms for managing transitions especially in the constitution so that there is no ambiguity as to who will take over once a sitting head of state dies.

The next person in line to take over should be able to hit the ground running so as to avoid the chaos that ensued following the death of wa Mutharika in which the late president’s inner circle tried to circumvent Malawi’s constitution to prevent then Vice-President Joyce Banda from taking over and instead install his brother, then Foreign minister Peter Mutharika.

Zimbabwe’s new constitution should spell out explicitly who should take over in the event the head of state is incapacitated or dies. Already warning flags have been raised by government’s handling of President Robert Mugabe’s numerous trips to the Far East for medical attention.

The government’s handling of Mugabe’s health situation reflects a culture of secrecy which is likely to boomerang since they continue hiding information about his health status even if it is in the public interest. His last foray to Singapore for a “routine checkup” caused a rumour storm which was only quieted by Mugabe’s appearance at the Harare International airport after days away in the Far East.

Anthony Sithole,

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