EXCLUSIVE: Why 'ailing' African leaders won't open up about their health

2017-06-06 08:30

Cape Town – "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," says the Institute for Pan African Thought and Conversation.

The past months, and indeed years, have seen speculation mounting over the health of at least four heads of state on the African continent. 

These include, Nigerian leader Muhammadu Buhari, 74, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, 93, Angolan leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos, 74, and Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika, 80.

These leaders, according to Bloomberg, often leave their countries in limbo, as they spend a lot of time abroad seeking medical attention. 

The nature of their ailments is always kept a secret from the public, as if the electorate won't vote for them if they open up. 

In an interview with News24, Institute for Security Studies analyst Jakkie Cilliers said that the stance often taken by most leaders not to disclose their illnesses was "a reflection of lack of trust in their citizens".

Cilliers said that some governments were "very secretive and didn't trust their citizens enough to disclose their president's ailments".

"Several African governments who have sick leaders are very secretive over the nature of their ailments and yet this makes governing in those countries very difficult, as they are always away. It's difficult to understand why the ailments are kept secretly from the public, because everyone in this world does get ill at some point," said Cilliers.  

He said that the leaders of Zimbabwe, Nigeria, Angola and Algeria were unlikely to take the continent forward, due to their old age and undisclosed health problems.

"These leaders cannot take the continent forward because they are very old and are presiding over a relatively younger generation. They are merely figure heads in most cases, and yet they are reluctant to allow younger people to take the lead ," said Cilliers

Here is a summary of some of the ailing African leaders 

Muhammadu Buhari

Buhari left for a fresh round of treatment in the British capital on May 7 and has not been heard from or seen since.

His health - and his ability to lead - has increasingly overshadowed politics in Nigeria, particularly in the last four weeks because of the lack of update.

Presidential aides told reporters at a briefing in Abuja last month that they would not even answer questions about it.

During Buhari's time in London earlier this year, his government insisted he was "hale and hearty", despite his increasingly frail appearance, and had to counter rumours he was terminally ill and even dead.

Buhari himself admitted on his return to Abuja in March that he "had never been so sick" and had undergone blood transfusions.

Muhammadu Buhari

             Buhari arrives in Nigeria in March after a lengthy sick leave in London

The west African country is now faced with political uncertainty, despite the formal handover of powers to his deputy Yemi Osinbajo.

Buhari's illness, according to reports, has triggered an earlier-than-usual jostling for position for the 2019 election and talk about succession.

Abdelaziz Bouteflika

Algeria’s veteran leader, Bouteflika has created a massive leadership vacuum in his country, as he is suffering from undisclosed sickness. 

The last time that the octogenarian was seen making a public appearance was in March since a visit by Germany Chancellor Angela Merkel was called off in February because of his ailing health.

The veteran president was at that time said to be suffering from "acute bronchitis".

The last-minute cancellation of Merkel's trip raised further speculation about the frail leader's medical condition and reignited a debate about his capacity to act as head of state.

Robert Mugabe 

Mugabe is another visibly frail head of state, who is also regularly out of his country for unknown medical check-ups in Singapore. 

The nonagenarian has often defied many rumours that suggested he could be "gravely ill". 

Mugabe's health - or lack of it - is a sensitive topic in Zimbabwe. The only presidential medical complaint that has ever been publicly discussed is his cataracts.

Robert Mugabe

His trips to Singapore often cause outbursts on social media, as many accuse him of seeking medical attention abroad, leaving the southern African country's hospitals that have over the years reportedly become "dysfunctional" due to "his misrule".   

Speculation over his health has mounted in recent years, particularly after he tripped and fell down some steps in February 2015.

He also read a speech to parliament in September 2015 apparently unaware that he had delivered the same address a month earlier.

WikiLeaks in 2011 released a 2008 US diplomatic cable saying that Mugabe was reported to have prostate cancer and had less than five years to live.

His ruling Zanu-PF party has been riven by factionalism for some time now, but still the veteran leader avoids naming a successor.

Jose Eduardo dos Santos

Angola's Jose Eduardo dos Santo is also facing speculation over his health. 

The veteran president, who has ruled the southern African country for nearly 40 years, recently returned to Luanda from Spain after nearly a month long absence due to undisclosed health issues.

Jose Eduardo dos Santos

Dos Santos's unnamed medical condition has recently been subject to fierce speculation, with his daughter Isabel being forced at one time to deny rumours that he had died while in Spain.

Opposition parties have called on the government to be more transparent about the president's health.

Dos Santos is expected to relinquish power during the southern African country's election in August. 




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