Should the health of African presidents be a guarded secret?
Posted Friday, August 3 2012 at 01:11
On Wednesday this week, I watched a programme on Voice of America discussing the propriety of publicly debating the health status of presidents and other heads of government.
The focus was mainly the sudden death of President Atta Mills of Ghana. However, a number of African Presidents have died this year and the health of the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, has been an issue of speculation for more than a month, especially when he missed an AU Summit held in Addis Ababa.
The issue on Voice of America was whether the health of these prominent people should be guarded top secrets or whether this is a matter on which the public has a right to be informed. There were strong arguments for both positions but in my view the secrecy is unwarranted as all human beings fall sick and all will eventually die.
This discussion is what led me to reflect on the implications of the poor health of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi since all Eastern Africans should in fact be concerned about his health because Ethiopia occupies a very important geo-political position in the region. Ethiopia is the largest and most populous country in Eastern Africa, with the largest armed forces confronting fairly well armed rebel groups in various regions.
It is a federal state in which states have the right of secession and there is always a possibility of one or more trying to exercise this constitutional right. Thus Ethiopia could be considered potentially highly volatile, in which case the situation after Zenawi could replicate or even surpass the chaos in East DR Congo. The major political party, the Tigre People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), was in fact originally a secessionist organisation.
When the TPLF was about to capture power in Addis Ababa in 1991 together with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), it formed the Ethiopian People’s Democratic Front (EPRDF) together with the Amhara National Democratic Movement (ANDM), the Oromo People’s Democratic Front (OPDF) and the Southern People’s Democratic Movement (SPDM).
It is a broad-based government in which these organisations share ministerial and other senior posts, including elected positions, but in which important apparatuses of the state, such as the army, security and intelligence are mainly controlled by the TPLF. This government has been confronting long established active armed organisations among the Oromo (the largest ethnic group) and the Ogaden Somalis.
There is also the added complication of religion as the Amhara and Tigrigna who are largely Christians have ruled the country for a long time, while the rest who are probably now the majority are Muslims.
So far the EPRDF has succeeded in holding the country together, largely by the use of hard power. Considerable economic growth has taken place, with some sectors, such as infrastructure (dams and roads), making impressive strides. However, in view of the reported poor health of Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, the moot question is how the internal situation will develop after Zenawi. Would, for example, the situation in Somalia continue to improve without the robust contribution of Ethiopia, if the Ethiopian armed forces were to be pre-occupied with an unstable internal post-Zenawi situation? Would the ongoing infrastructure projects be completed? Would the planned Lamu-South Sudan-Ethiopia Transport Project be implemented on schedule? What would in fact be the regional security configuration vis a vis the anti-terrorism security interests of the West (America)? What about relations with Eritrea, whose President is also reported to have health issues?
Whereas every country is not as strategic as Ethiopia, nevertheless the poor health of any African head of government could still have similar important national and regional implications. Should, therefore, the poor health of these important people remain a secret? Even Ghana which has moved a long way on the democratic path, the health of the late President
Atta Mills remained a politicised issue. The Presidential (Transition) Act 2012, assented in May by the late President Mills, provides for only the transition from one democratically elected President to another oblivious of the possibility of death before completion of a presidential term. Clearly, African countries need to prepare for the possibility of their heads of government dying in power so that the Benin scenario never occurs again.
Mr Ruzindana is a former IGG and former MP.