Dear Tingasiga: Uganda’s current rulers spend millions of public dollars on their healthcare abroad, complete with comfortable digs for their bajanjabi (attendants) and pocket money for a little shopping before returning home. President Yoweri Museveni puts the figure at $75 million.
It is a practice that is so entrenched in the elite culture that many politicians and the well connected will do whatever it takes to maintain access to this luxurious benefit. Hopefully, this will change when the new $250 million hospital, described as “ultramodern”, opens at Lubowa, Kampala. One person that is unlikely to seek treatment at the new “ultramodern” facility is the Ugandan President himself. Mr Museveni, honest man that he is, once declared that he would never allow a Ugandan doctor to touch him or his family. He is not an outlier by any means.
Most African rulers distrust their own nationals when it comes to healthcare. This year alone, four African presidents have flown to distant lands for medical attention. Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari spent the winter in London, getting treatment for an “ear infection”. He was back in Nigeria in March, but returned to London for a “medical check up” in May. Two months later, the 74-year-old president of oil-rich Nigeria remains in London.
Jose Eduardo dos Santos, the 74-year-old president of oil-rich Angola, spent most of May in Spain where he underwent medical treatment for an undisclosed illness. Patrice Talon, the 59-year-old president of Benin underwent prostatic and bowel surgery in Paris, France last month. Robert Gabriel Mugabe, the Zimbabwean ruler, has already flown to Singapore three times this year alone, just for medical “checkups.” The 93-year-old president rules a country that once had some of the finest healthcare facilities in Africa. Many of Africa’s post-independence rulers have died on the job.
While dozens have been killed by assassins or during bloody coups d’état, many have died of natural causes, usually preferring the more agreeable deathbeds of Europe or North America to those in their impoverished, albeit naturally rich realms. In 1984, Guinea’s Ahmed Sekou Toure, in power for 26 years, was in Saudi Arabia when he felt ill. He immediately flew to the USA, checked himself into the world-famous Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio, for “emergency treatment” of heart disease. He died within hours of arrival. He left behind a reported 50 children and millions of paupers in a country with rich deposits of uranium, bauxite, iron ore and diamonds.
Lansana Conte, the next long-ruling autocrat in Guinea, continued the tradition, earning a lot of air miles flying abroad for treatment of his diabetes and heart disease. He died in 2008 at the age of 74.
Other rulers who have died abroad include
Muhammad Haji Ibrahim Egal of Somaliland (Pretoria, South Africa, 2002), Michael Sata of Zambia (London, England, 2008), Levi Patrick Mwanawasa of Zambia (Paris, France, 2008), Omar Bongo Ondimba of Gabon (Barcelona, Spain, 2009), Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia (Brussels, Belgium, 2012) and Malam Bucai Sanha of Guinea Bissau (Paris, France, 2012).
A few rulers who died in their presidential palaces did so after long stays in foreign hospitals, returning home only after all hope was lost. Felix Houghet Boigny, who had ruled the Cote D’Ivoire for 30 years, was admitted to a Paris hospital in 1990, stricken with cancer. He remained an absentee ruler for the next three years, returning to die in Yamoussoukro, his capital, in early December 1993, still attached to life support machines. He body relinquished power when they disconnected him from the life-sustaining machines on December 7, 1993.Nigeria’s Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, elected president when he was already very ill, spent months undergoing treatment in Saudi Arabia for his heart and kidney diseases before returning to his country to die in 2010.
Etienne Gnassingbe Eyadema of Togo was the most unfortunate of all. Stricken with heart disease, Eyadema was evacuated from Lome with the hope of getting him to the safer environs of Paris. He died aboard the plane, just south of Tunis, unable to fully escape from a continent whose wealth he had enjoyed, but whose health he had diminished during his 38 years on the throne. The actions of these African rulers are a self-indictment that speaks louder than the pens and voices of their critics. They invest more in bullets and other measures of coercion than in health prevention and treatment. They nurture corruption and weaken fiscal management and accountability for public health resources. Where they invest in health care, a disproportionate amount goes to the elite and well connected, and to the major cities in their realms.
They parade luxury hotels and suburban mansions as evidence of development, and ignore the basic fact that a healthy and educated population is the foundation of sustainable development. Bad politics, bad governance, fake democracy and manipulation of national constitutions to serve the incumbent consume their thoughts. Meanwhile, the impoverished masses that are denied their right to good healthcare are silenced and coopted into the grand deception, selling them a mirage of a better tomorrow.
It is a macabre dance between oppressor and oppressed, all in the service of a greed that will continue to sap the energy out of the African until he either collapses or says enough is enough!