Lessons for African leaders from Meles Zenawi’s death
Posted Friday, August 24 2012 at 01:00
Like it is the case with most African leaders, the illness and eventual death of the Ethiopian former Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, 57, has been a big issue in both local and international media.
Zenawi’s illness seems to have been concealed for political reasons until death struck at midnight on Monday. Yes, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, who is also Ethiopia’s Foreign Minister, will become acting head of government. He will most likely face the challenge of fitting into the shoes of Zenawi, who has been instrumental in the war against insurgents in Somalia. Zenawi initiated fundamental policies and strategies for his country and the struggle to liberate Somalia from political turmoil.
Liberian President Ellen Johnson SirLeaf said Zenawi was an “intellectual leader for the continent.” UK Prime Minister David Cameron called him “an inspirational spokesman for Africa”, who had lifted millions out of poverty. There have been evident economic and infrastructure reforms in the country. Interestingly, some of his critics in Ethiopia maintain that Zenawi committed intolerable human rights abuse. Yes, he has contributed so much economically in his 21-year reign, but this was at the expense of democracy.
Zenawi’s death has come as a shock and disappointment to many people across the continent. His death has also sparked fears of a leadership vacuum, which could lead to instability in Ethiopia. Speculation about his health mounted when he missed an African Union Summit in Addis Ababa last month.
A presidential press release indicated Mr Zenawi had died in a hospital in Brussels, without giving details of his ailment. This half-hearted announcement leaves Ethiopians and Africa with questions. Lack of accountability is a strong political plague which is ruining Africa. Most leaders appear to be so distant from their people.
We are quick to say the president has flown out on routine medical examination. This is a political game, which has always backfired in the faces of those who try to employ it. Africa is littered with such unfortunate incidents. Former President of Ghana John Atta Mills, 68, died recently. But until his death, his illness was concealed. Atta Mills had recently returned from eight-day of medical treatment in the US.
Eager to deny the speculation, Atta Mills jogged at the airport upon his return in a display of vigour. A month later, he was taken ill and later passed on. His intention was to seek re-election despite his concealed poor health. This was unfair to the people he is supposed to serve.
Fortunately for Ghana, a quick replacement was found in the person of Mr John Mahama. While Ghana is an exception as a stable democracy, J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa programme at the Washington-based Atlantic Council, said earlier that strongmen in the region tended to concentrate power in their own hands until their deaths.
In Malawi following President Bingu wa Mutharika’s death, brief controversy over who to replace him emerged despite the constitutional provision, which allows the country’s number two, to fill the void. The road was not smooth for Ms Joyce Hilda Banda, 62, to be inaugurated as president. Banda has embarked on economic and political reforms. She has discarded the presidential jet and fleet of luxury cars.
In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe, 88, insists he is still “fit as a fiddle” despite reports that he is battling health complications. In Gabon, only hours before the death of former President Omar Bongo, who was the world’s longest serving president, he was described by his prime minister as “alive and well”.
Nigeria’s former President Umaru Yar’Adua was too weak while in office. His former spokesman wrote in a book that the President once had to be carried off a runway by a soldier during a state visit to Togo. The military officer assigned to Yar’Adua draped traditional robes to conceal what was happening. State-run television was told to only film one side of his face when the other side was swollen. The national Assembly ultimately voted extra-constitutionally to empower then vice president Goodluck Jonathan to act as president of Nigeria.
The undisclosed illness of Guinean former strongman Lansana Conte also became a topic before he died in 2008. Talks of his death surfaced periodically, including in 2003 when he was forced to go on TV to deny them. The week before he died, the editor of a local paper was arrested after publishing a picture of a frail leader struggling to stand up. A spokesman for the president went on TV to assure the nation that Conte was not ill and the newspaper was ordered to print a photograph showing he was in good health.
Honestly, African leaders should embrace good leadership if they are to steer their countries in the right direction. People should know the health condition of their leaders as a matter of accountability. Of course this does not rule out those who may seize the moment to foster their political agenda, but it is ultimately the right political thing to do.
Rev. Makuma is the Pentecostal Assemblies of God, western regional overseer. email@example.com