Being an African president is a risky business. It can be
fatal. We`re already three down this year alone, and critically-ill Meles
Zenawi looks like he`ll make it four. Other continents, by and large, seem to
do a better job of hanging on to their leaders.
The curse of the African president strikes again. This time,
its victim was Ghana`s John Atta Mills, who complained of pains on Monday last
week and was dead by Tuesday afternoon. Mills was the latest in a disturbingly
long line of African presidents to be unexpectedly and unceremoniously
despatched to the Great Presidential Palace in Sky while still firmly ensconced
in a real one.

Mills is the third this year alone. Before him was Malawi`s
Bingu wa Mutharika, who had a heart attack in April after over-exerting himself
in an illicit sexual encounter with a female MP (according to this
scandalous report, which, as much as I want it to be true, does strain the
definition of credibility).
And in January, Guinea-Bissau`s Malam Bacai Sanha succumbed
in Paris after spending most of his two years in office in hospitals. Not
Guinea Bissau hospitals, of course. As a rule, African presidents don`t
leave themselves at the mercy of their own health systems, not even in Guinea
Bissau, which has the continent`s best drug supplies (a fringe benefit of being
a narco-state).
Go back just a little bit further and the list of
dead sitting African presidents gets alarmingly longer. Libya`s Muammar Gaddafi
last year, although his circumstances were rather unusual (as, of course, was
In 2010, it was Nigeria`s Umaru Musa Yar`Adua. In 2009, Omar
Bongo of Gabon. In 2008, Zambia`s Levy Mwanawasa and Guinea`s Lansana Conté.
Maybe it`s a presidential thing. It`s a stressful job. But
other continents aren`t affected in the same way. Since 2008, Africa has lost
eight heads of state. There are only 54 states. That`s a presidential mortality
rate of nearly 15%; slightly higher than the infant mortality rate of Sierra
Leone, which is the second highest in the world. In other words, a baby in
Sierra Leone has more chance of surviving its first five years than African
presidents do of getting through a few terms in office.
Contrast this with other continents. In the same time
period, there was just the one presidential fatality each from Asia (the Dear
Leader from North Korea), Europe (Poland`s Lech Kaczy?ski, in a plane crash),
and North America (David Thomson of Barbados, from cancer). South America`s
leaders all somehow managed to keep themselves alive, an impressive feat especially
considering Hugo Chavez`s increasingly shaky public appearances. Same for
So what`s happening in Africa – why do our presidents keep
dying on us?
It`s tempting to resort to the old cliché about death being
the only thing that can separate African leaders from their grip on power. But
the facts don`t support this analysis. It`s certainly true of Bongo, Conte and
Gaddafi, all of whom were old-school dictators who were never going to stop.
But the other five were all within their constitutional term
limits. And they hadn`t even fiddled with those limits yet. Mutharika looked
like he was about to, but never got the chance. Mills, Sanha and Yar`Adua
hadn`t even made it to a second term.
So the problem must lie somewhere else. Perhaps it`s something
to do with age. Political success tends to come later to African leaders, a
function perhaps of some holding on to it for too long and a long tradition of
veneration for one`s elders. The average age of African heads of state is 62.5.
That`s pension time, or nearing it, in most countries. To give you a bit of
context, the European equivalent is just 55. This is also the average age of
American presidents at the time of their inauguration. Barack Obama is 50.
David Cameron is 45.
Given that 62.5 is just an average, and the continent does
have a few young leaders – the DRC`s Joseph Kabila is just a pipsqueak at 41,
while Swaziland`s King Mswati III is 44 and still virile (he needs to be with
all those wives) – it follows that there are also some very old leaders.
Plenty of Zimbabweans have questioned why Robert Mugabe is
still alive and kicking at 89 when so many younger presidents have fallen
before him. Mwai Kibaki of Kenya is 80, and rumours abound that he`s exactly as
alert as 80-year-olds are expected to be: that is, not very.
Age is certainly a factor in Africa`s high presidential
mortality rate, probably the main factor. It`s a truism that the longer you
live, the more chances you have to die. Life is really just one long countdown
to death; you don`t know when it`s coming, but it`s always getting closer.
Going by the averages, African presidents are more than
seven years closer to their deaths than their European counterparts. The recent
record seems to confirms this.
But it`s not just about age. Bear in mind too that basic
health indicators in Africa are, on the whole, lower than any other continent.
You might think this has nothing to do with presidents,
especially when they seek treatment in exclusive foreign hospitals. But
healthcare is about more than just immediate treatment. Lifestyle plays a role,
and, more pertinently here, so does one`s health history. Growing up without
access to decent healthcare while quite probably living through some form of
rebellion, civil war or chaotic independence movement is bound to have long
term implications.
Whatever the reason, it`s a disturbing phenomenon. Sudden
deaths create power vacuums, and power vacuums can cause huge instability.
Sanha`s death led almost directly to the coup in Guinea Bissau and the messy
transitional arrangement that doesn`t look like it`s working.
Mutharika`s passing also prompted a few tense moments, with
members of his party wanting to ignore the constitutional succession process.
In the end, everything worked out well, with Mutharika`s replacement, Joyce
Banda, proving far more effective than he ever was.
But Banda had better look after herself. Being an African
president is a dangerous business, after all.
SOURCE: Nyasa Times


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