Bongo, Mobutu, Kenyatta, and how to die like an African president

Thursday January 10 2019


By Daniel K Kalinaki

In 1976, Dr Christian Bernard, a South African cardiologist, flew into Kenya at the invitation of the government.

His job was to assess the health of president Jomo Kenyatta and quietly give an educated guess on how much longer the elderly leader had to go.

Things went well until Dr Bernard, perhaps overcome by emotion, broke down and wept during a dinner thrown in his honour.

This gave the game away and sparked off a palace succession battle so intense that Attorney General Charles Njonjo was forced to proclaim: “It is a criminal offence for any person to encompass, imagine, devise or intend the death or deposition of the president”.

The failed coup in Gabon earlier this week served up a reminder of how political the health of leaders is. Ali Bongo Ondimba, the incumbent who has been in power since 2009, and whose father ruled for 42 years before him, has been in the shadows since suffering a stroke last October while on a visit to Saudi Arabia.

Although he lacks his late father’s popular appeal and deft political dealings, Ali Bongo was helped to the succession by expectations that he would continue the patronage that had kept the older man in power.

His attempted removal offers a refresher course in managing presidential pulses, or if you want to add a sub-title, ‘how to die like an African president’. There are generally two study groups.

Now, it must be pointed out that leaders generally have access to the best medical care money can buy and private armies giving them round-the-clock protection, but what African leaders in particular seem to have is a fair chunk of good luck.

You never hear of a head of state slipping in the bath and slamming their heads on the gold-plated taps, being swept away by a tsunami during a family holiday in Indonesia, being bitten by a snake while out on the campaign trail, or choking on a piece of meat while dining alone.

Those who are young and bursting with health tend to go out in a volley of assassins’ bullets. This is the Thomas Sankara, Patrice Lumumba and Laurent Kabila model although there can be dramatic variants (see, for example, Samora, M. Habyarimana, J. or for a really gruesome example, Doe, S.).

The second major group is the one that succumbs to disease. If the incumbent is unlucky, this might come suddenly, say in the form of a heart attack or a stroke. Depending on when and where it happens, this might give the inner ruling circle a chance to manage the announcement and the transition to a preferred successor (for example Gnassingbé Eyadema to Faure Gnassingbé in Togo).

If it happens in a less convenient setting, such as with Gen Sani Abacha who, rumour has it, didn’t know whether he was coming or going, it might just put paid to any plans of a long reign or handing over to one’s son.

Most times, however, the illness is painful and drawn out. In such cases, managing information is as important as managing prescriptions.

One method is to withdraw from the public eye (Mobutu to Gbadolite) and only make rare appearances when one’s health permits. This way your appearance to wave to your people is what makes the news, not your lengthy absences to receive treatment.

Paul Biya of Switzerland, who is rumoured to have some kind of relationship with the West African country of Cameroon, seems to be a good student of the Congolese despot.

If, however, the disease can’t be hidden, or if the leader is of advanced age anyway, it is better, in a counter-intuitive manner, for them to put themselves in the hands of a small inner circle with a handful of potential successors, but none of whom should be pre-eminent. Done right, as with Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria, this keeps external rivals from emerging while internal rivals hold each other in check, being careful not to make the first power grab, in case it fails.

Robert Mugabe could have stayed in power long after his death had his wife, Gucci Grace, not upset the delicate balancing act by attempting to grab the seat for herself. With some luck, Ali Bongo might stay on for many more years, being wheeled out every five years or so to run for re-election, before being returned to his hiding place by the real power brokers.

The succession can be managed, with some luck and preparation, but some things can’t. After drying his tears and calming down, Dr Bernard revealed to the Kenyan intelligence chief and a few insiders that Mzee had two years, tops, to live. Almost exactly two years later, Mzee Kenyatta died and vice president Daniel arap Moi, a survivor per excellence, took over, despite all inner-circle machinations. Fate – like death – is inevitable!

Mr Kalinaki is a journalist and a poor man’s
freedom fighter. [email protected]
Twitter: @Kalinaki.