The Sun News

In sickness and in health: A world governed by sick presidents (3)



With age comes wisdom. Nido Qubein rightly opined that your present circumstances cannot determine where you can go; they merely determine where you start from. For the past few weeks, we have been discussing sick presidents from other parts of the world. Today, our quest shall be on past African sick presidents, after which we shall explore more world leaders who vegetated away, while pretending to be governing their people. No wonder Africa has not left the derogatory image of “the dark continent”.

Past African sick presidents

Jomo Kenyatta (1891 – 1978), governed the Republic of Kenya as Prime Minister from 1963 to 1964 and then as President from 1964 to 1978. He was the first person to hold the post of President. He led the Kenya African National Union (KANU) party.

President Kenyatta suffered a heart attack in 1966. In the mid-1970s, he lapsed into periodic comas lasting from a few hours to a few days from time to time. On August 14, 1978, he hosted his entire family, including his son, Peter Magana, who flew in from Britain with his family, at a reunion in Mombasa, and later died at the age of 86 of natural causes attributable to old age. He was buried on August 31, 1978, in Nairobi, after a state funeral at a mausoleum on Parliament grounds.

John Evans Fiifi Atta Mills (1944 – 2012) was a Ghanaian politician and legal scholar who served as President of Ghana from 2009 to 2012. He was inaugurated on January 7, 2009, having surprisingly defeated the ruling party’s candidate, Nana Akufo-Addo, in the 2008 election. He was the first Ghanaian head of state to die in office. Mills died on July 24, 2012, at the 37 Military Hospital, Accra, Ghana, three days after his 68th birthday. Though the cause of death was not immediately released, he had been suffering from throat cancer, which had taken him to the United States. Announcing his death, his office noted that he died hours after being taken ill, but a presidential aide said that he had complained of pains the day prior to his death. However, Mills’s brother, Dr. Cadman Mills, later disclosed during the graveside service that Mills had died from complications of a massive hemorrhagic stroke resulting from brain aneurysm.

El Hadj Omar Bongo Ondimba (1935 – 2009) was President of Gabon for 42 whopping years, from 1967 until his death in 2009. Trust African learders, they prefer to die in office so as to be accorded state burials.

Omar Bongo was promoted to key positions as a young official under Gabon’s first President Léon M’ba in the 1960s, before being elected Vice-President in his own right in 1966. In 1967, he succeeded M’ba to become the second President of Gabon, upon the latter’s death.

On May 7, 2009, the Gabonese government announced that Bongo had temporarily suspended his official duties and taken time off to mourn his departed wife and rest in Spain.

International media, however, reported that Bongo was seriously ill and undergoing treatment for cancer in hospital in Barcelona, Spain. The Gabonese government lied that he was in Spain for a few days’ rest following the “intense emotional shock” of his wife’s death but it eventually admitted that he was in a Spanish clinic, “undergoing a medical check-up”.

On June 7, 2009, unconfirmed reports quoting French media and citing sources “close to the French government” reported that Bongo had died in Spain of complications from advanced intestinal cancer. The government of Gabon denied the reports, which had been picked up by numerous other news sources, and continued to insist that he was well. His death was eventually confirmed by then Gabonese Prime Minister, Jean Eyeghe Ndong, who said that Bongo had died of a heart attack. True, in the fullness of time, the truth will emerge.

Lansana Conté (1934 – 2008) was the second President of Guinea, serving from April 3, 1984, until his death in December 2008.

In the early hours of December 23, 2008, Aboubacar Somparé, the President of the National Assembly, announced on television that Conté had died at 6:45pm local time on December 22,  “after a long illness”, without specifying the cause of death. According to Somparé, Conté “hid his physical suffering” for years “in order to give happiness to Guinea.” Conté had left the country for medical treatment on numerous occasions in the years preceding his death, and speculations about his health had long been widespread. Contrary to his usual practice, Conté did not appear on television to mark Tabaski earlier in December 2008, and this sparked renewed speculations, as well as concerns about the possibility of violence in the event of his death. At about the same time, a newspaper had published a photograph suggesting that Conté was in poor physical condition and having difficulty standing up. The editor of that newspaper was arrested and the newspaper was required to print a photograph in which Conté looked healthy. Compare this with Nigeria, where the Aso Villa Punch newspaper reporter, Olalekan Adetayo, had been sent packing by CSO Bashir Abubakar for reporting “unacceptable” details about PMB’s poor health.

Mohamed Taki Abdoulkarim was elected president of the Comoros Islands in 1996 and was the fourth president of the Indian Ocean Islamic republic since its independence from France in 1975. He was the third to die in office.

Because the Comoros Islands had a stormy history in the preceding years, in order to douse tension, the announcement of Taki’s death was quickly followed by assurances that he had died a natural death, having just returned home from an official journey to Turkey.

King Hassan II (1929 – 1999) was King of Morocco. He was the eldest son of Mohammed V, Sultan, then King of Morocco, and his second wife, Lalla Abla bint Tahar.

Hassan died of natural causes in his birth place at 70. A national funeral was held for him in Rabat, Morocco, with over 40 heads of state in attendance. He was buried in the Mausoleum of Mohammed V in Rabat.

Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal (1928 – 2002) was the Prime Minister of Somalia in the 1960s. He also served as the President of Somaliland, a self-declared Republic that is internationally recognised as an autonomous region of Somalia, from 1993 to 2002.

Egal died on May 3, 2002, in Pretoria, South Africa, while undergoing surgery at a military hospital. His body was returned to Somaliland for a state funeral. About 4,000 mourners reportedly attended his burial in Berbera, and the regional parliament declared seven days of mourning.

General Gnassingbé Eyadéma (1935 – 2005) was the President of Togo. He participated in two successful military coups, in January 1963 and January 1967, and became President on April 14, 1967. As President, he created a political party, the Rally of the Togolese People (RPT), and headed an anti-communist single-party regime until the early 1990s, when reforms leading to multi-party elections began.

On February 5, 2005, he died on board a plane, 250km south of Tunis, Tunisia. He died “as he was being evacuated for emergency treatment abroad,” according to a government statement. Officials had claimed that the cause of death was a heart attack. At the time of his death, he was the longest-serving head of state in Africa.

Félix Houphouët-Boigny (1905 –1993) was affectionately called “Papa Houphouët” or “Le Vieux” (the Old One). He was the first President of Ivory Coast, serving for more than three decades until his death.

Houphouët-Boigny delayed, as much as he could, in officially designating a successor. The President’s health became increasingly fragile, with Prime Minister Alassane Ouattara administering the country from 1990 onwards, while the President was hospitalised in France. There was a struggle for power, which ended when Houphouët-Boigny rejected Ouattara in favour of Henri Konan Bédié, the President of the National Assembly. In December 1993, Houphouët-Boigny, terminally ill with prostate cancer, was urgently flown back to Côte d’Ivoire so he could die there. He was kept on life support to ensure that the last dispositions concerning his succession were defined. After his family consented, Houphouët-Boigny was disconnected from life support on December 7, 1993. At the time of his death, Houphouët-Boigny was the longest-serving leader in Africa and the third in the world, after Fidel Castro of Cuba and Kim Il Sung of North Korea.

Levy Patrick Mwanawasa (1948 – 2008) was the third Republican President of Zambia. He was credited for having initiated a campaign to rid the country of corruption.

Mwanawasa was hospitalised at the Percy Military Hospital, near Paris, France. In a statement on July 7, 2008, Banda said that Mwanawasa “remained in a stable condition”, but had to undergo surgery, which Banda described as minor, to correct a breathing problem. Banda said that his operation was successful. He later said that Mwanawasa’s condition was stable and that his doctors were “satisfied with [his] current status”.

Vice-President Banda later declared on August 18, that Mwanawasa’s condition had suddenly deteriorated and urgent medical intervention was necessary. On August 19, a family member who wished to remain anonymous stated that Mwanawasa had died early that morning. The news of Mwanawasa’s death was confirmed by Banda through a television broadcast on the government-owned Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation. He informed the nation that Mwanawasa had died that morning at the Percy Military Hospital in Paris. You see, no one can cover the sun with his palm!

Malam Bacai Sanhá (1947 – 2012) was a politician who was President of Guinea-Bissau from September 8, 2009, to January 9, 2012.

Sanhá was a diabetic. In early December 2009, he was due to visit Portugal, but he delayed the visit due to health problems. After fainting, he was taken to Dakar, Senegal, and then Paris for medical treatment, where he confessed that he was a diabetic who had suffered a drop in hemoglobin, even though he insisted that his diabetes was “not as serious as people want to make out.” Sanhá spent 10 days in Paris and subsequently stayed in the Canary Islands for a time, before returning to Bissau on December 30, 2009. After that, he spent regular intervals in hospitals in Dakar and Paris. During his stay in Paris, a coup resulting from in-fighting within the armed forces was put down, less than two weeks before his death while in office.

Bingu wa Mutharika (1934 – 2012) was a Malawian politician and economist who was President of Malawi from May 2004, until his death on April 5, 2012, at the age of 78. He had suffered a heart attack and was reportedly flown to a South African hospital due to power outages in Lilongwe.

His condition was initially announced as critical. His death was officially confirmed on April 7, the day Joyce Banda was sworn in as Malawi’s first female President, despite much controversy. In the fullness of time, God’s will must prevail.

Michael Chilufya Sata (1937 – 2014) was the fifth President of Zambia, from September 23, 2011, until his death on October 29, 2014. A Social Democrat, he led the Patriotic Front in 2001 and was popularly known as “King Cobra.”

Concerns about Sata’s health grew in 2014 and some suggested that he was no longer really running the government due to his condition, although the government denied it. He stopped appearing in public, which seemed uncharacteristic for the notably extroverted and outspoken President. Some alleged that the government was lying about Sata’s health, as he also missed a speech at the general debate of the 69th session of the United Nations General Assembly, amid rumours that he had fallen ill at a New York City hotel.

On October 19, he left the country for what was described as a medical check-up, leaving Edgar Lungu, the Minister of Defence, in charge of the country in his absence. Given the circumstances, including the sudden nature of the trip, Sata’s absence from public view and the fact that the 50th anniversary of Zambian independence was only days away, many believed that Sata was very seriously ill.

Sata died a week later, on October 28 in London, while receiving treatment for an undisclosed illness. Surely, no one can hind behind his finger!

Thought for the week

“Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.” (Winston Churchill).


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