The dilemma of dead presidents in Africa

2012-04-14 10:16

The death of a president in Africa is no simple process.

One would expect it to be easy – being dead or alive is clear cut. You can’t be a little bit dead, just like you can’t be a little bit ­pregnant.

Look at the confusion around Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika, who passed away last week. We will never know the exact time or place of his death because the Malawian government dragged its heels in pronouncing the president deceased.

To obfuscate matters, Mutharika was flown to South Africa last Friday, allegedly for urgent medical treatment, but Malawians seem unanimous he died even before he was wheeled on to the plane. The trip to South Africa was merely a trick by his aides to buy time, and keep the world confused about whether he was dead or alive.

When Zambian president ­Levi Mwanawasa suffered a stroke during a crucial African Union summit in Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt, confusion reigned for days on whether he had in fact died or not.

Ditto Nigerian president Umaro Yar’adua, who spent months in a Saudi Arabian hospital before word of a possible presidential takeover made his wife decide to bring him back to Abuja, where he died in May 2010. Although he had been ill since 2007 due to a liver condition, he insisted on being fit to govern, despite ongoing ­concerns about his health.

A more current example is ­Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, about whom speculation about his illness and death is ­almost as common as his ­utterances denouncing Britain.

The latest rumours said he is “on his deathbed” in a ­Singapore hospital, a report vehemently denied by his aides and ministers.

But courtesy of WikiLeaks, we now know Mugabe suffers from prostate cancer, giving credence to speculation he needs medical aid.

Especially before big national appearances, like the Independence Day celebrations on April 18, Mugabe usually takes a quick trip to get medical ­treatment.

He likes to show off his agility by doing two-hour speeches, as he did in December at the Zanu-PF conference, where he was again chosen as the presidential ­candidate for the forthcoming election. Why is it so hard for a president to die? To answer that question, you have to look at whose interests are at stake.

Succession plans, or the lack thereof, often play a role in whether a government or ruling party can confidently declare its leader has passed on.

In most European countries and the US, the process is entrenched in tried-and-tested laws and therefore the succession mostly happens without incident.

In Zimbabwe’s case, it is in­ ­Mugabe’s interest to keep factions fighting within Zanu-PF, making him seem like the glue that keeps the party together.

So by refusing to anoint a clear successor, he makes sure loyalty is vested in him.

Often the bad state of healthcare in the country – which should be an indictment to the president – is held forth as the reason for the ­confusion. Bringing Mutharika to South Africa gave his aides time to try to stage a constitutional coup, where they would try and subvert the Constitution, which puts the vice-president in the top job if the incumbent dies. In this case the vice-president, and now president, Joyce Banda, is a member of the ­opposition party – which explains their scrambling.

For countries in this kind of ­limbo, officials may need to use the time to look for a shredder and get rid of incriminating evidence of abuse of power, which can haunt them in a new administration.

It also buys them time to do some looting, propping them up ­financially in preparation for an ­insecure future.

The only exception in this kind of scenario is former South African president Nelson Mandela. When it comes to handing over power, our processes are cemented, as proven by the handing over of power from Thabo Mbeki to ­Kgalema Motlanthe in 2008.

But with Madiba things are different. He is seen by some as the glue that holds South Africa together. He plays no active role in politics, but some fear his death will spark ­wide-scale conflict.

So even Madiba, who so ­carefully ensured leadership ­struggles are left to the next ­generation, may not be able to die in peace.

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