Unfit for office: The perils of reporting on the president’s health

Robert Mugabe died at least once a year. It usually happened in January, when he was on his annual leave, and the news travelled via whispers and rumour. The Zimbabwean president, who ended up becoming Africa’s oldest head of state, was pronounced dead so frequently that he was moved to comment on it himself. “I have died many times. That’s where I have beaten Christ. Christ died once and resurrected once. I have died and resurrected and I don’t know how many times I will die and resurrect,” he said in 2012.

Dumisani Muleya, the former editor of the Zimbabwe Independent, wasn’t buying the gossip. 

He was always sceptical about the reports of Mugabe’s death — which often originated in anonymous reports on websites — because Mugabe had a funny habit of turning up shortly afterwards, looking very much alive.

“His close security unit was my first port of call,” Muleya told the Mail & Guardian. “I knew a lot of guys who were in his security and I would call and they were more than willing to speak off the record. I would call and say, I have heard ABC and the guy would say: ‘Unfortunately, it’s not true. I am on duty and we are with him.’ ” 

Muleya, who now runs the investigative news platform The News Hawks, said that his publication never carried stories that referenced the rumours directly. 


Instead, they would write stories about what Mugabe had actually been doing, so that readers would know the truth.

It was much trickier dealing with the reports of Mugabe’s ill health. He regularly sought treatment in Singapore for an undisclosed medical condition, but Zimbabwean journalists were under huge pressure to not report on his health problems.

“There was a lot of pressure, there were endless reactions. They never wanted transparency,” Muleya said.

‘The casket is coming’

The reports of Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika’s death were also greatly exaggerated — at least at first. In an interview with The Guardian in February 2012, Mutharika commented on the persistent rumours of his demise. 

“Someone said Bingu is dead: government officials are going there to bring his coffin. So when I came here, I apologised and said, ‘In my haste to come to Malawi I forgot my casket at the airport; the casket is coming,’ ” the president joked.

But just two months later, the president really was dead. He keeled over in a meeting with a member of parliament, and was gone by the time he hit the floor. 

The ruling party went to extraordinary lengths to conceal the president’s death from the rest of the country. This was to prevent the vice-president, Joyce Banda, from taking power — she was only meant to be a placeholder. 

So they strapped the president’s corpse to a hospital bed, stuck a ventilator onto him and then flew the dead body to South Africa to receive “medical treatment”.

For those few days, between Mutharika’s actual death on 5 April and the official announcement of his death on 7 April, there was chaos in the capital, Lilongwe. 

In an interview with the M&G last year, Banda recalled: “You can imagine what was going through my mind … I didn’t know until the body was already in South Africa.” 

Eventually she had to call the army commander to tell her exactly what was going on, and to demand that he enforce the constitutional handover of power.

It was just as difficult for the journalists trying to cover the story. “The president’s death was announced officially on the third day, but our sources had told us the moment he died that we had lost the president. But which editor could dare pronounce him dead? So, for two days, we published about illness when we knew better,” remembers Golden Matonga, a correspondent for the M&G.

Matonga adds: “Looking back, part of the reason why the media was so hesitant to reveal the president’s death was that there had been many purported demises before, which turned out to be false. So, naturally, editors developed caution.”

Seeing double

In 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari campaigned on ending medical tourism, the practice of Nigerian politicians travelling abroad for medical care. But he himself became known for spending long periods in Britain being treated for undisclosed ailments. Since becoming president in 2015, Buhari has visited the UK on at least five medical trips, including a lengthy stay of more than five months in 2017. 

Although Nigeria and South Africa are the two largest economies on the continent
President Muhammadu Buhari. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

The president’s aides insisted their boss was just fine, even as images of a rail-thin Buhari receiving visitors emerged. In the absence of concrete evidence, speculation grew, and an outlandish story about a body double (“Jubril from Sudan”) replacing Buhari came to be widely believed in many circles around the country. The rumour gained so much traction Buhari himself had to dispel it.

Buhari’s case was not Nigeria’s first or worst rodeo with a president’s failing health being shrouded in secrecy. The dubious honour belongs to the late president Umaru Yar’Adua. Before he died in May 2010, he had not been seen in public since a trip to Saudi Arabia the previous November to receive treatment for acute pericarditis, a swelling of the heart membrane. Yar’Adua left the country without transferring presidential powers to his deputy, Goodluck Jonathan, plunging Nigeria into a constitutional crisis: a country of 150-million left rudderless. 

With demonstrations in Nigeria and the diaspora and court cases arguing in favour of Jonathan’s elevation to the seat of power, Yar’Adua gave a curious radio interview to BBC Hausa in January 2010, saying he would return soon. No one could ascertain if he was actually the one who gave the interview, and local media was rife with speculation of his demise. The owners of Nigeria’s most prominent media outlets called for his resignation or impeachment weeks after the interview. 

By March he had returned to Nigeria but no one saw him, not even Jonathan, who had become acting president by this time. On May 5, the presidency announced Yar’Adua’s passing, ultimately to nobody’s surprise. The debate was whether he’d died weeks before the announcement was made.

State secrets

African journalists have had to deal with a number of other heads of state who have lied about, covered up or otherwise misled their populations about their fitness for office. 

Algeria’s former president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, for example, who was rarely seen in public after suffering a stroke in 2013. 

Algeria’s president Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who contracted Covid-19 earlier this year and disappeared to receive treatment in Europe. 

Gabon’s President Ali Bongo, has spent months shuttling between hospitals in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and looks more fragile every time he makes a public appearance. 

Former Angolan president Eduardo Dos Santos was absent for nearly a month before the government confirmed he was receiving medical treatment in Spain. 

And of course the late Michael Sata, the Zambian president who suggested reports of his poor health were treasonous, before dying in office in a London hospital in 2014. 

Madame-President: Samia Suluhu Hassan. (Photo by Inga Kjer/Photothek via Getty Images)

This list is not exhaustive, but to it can now be added the name of John Pombe Magufuli, the Tanzanian leader who disappeared from public view several weeks ago amid widespread rumours of his illness or death, before his passing was officially confirmed on Wednesday. 

It turns out that, even in a heavily restricted media environment like Tanzania, the death of a president can only be kept secret for so long.

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Aanu Adeoye
Aanu Adeoye is a media fellow at Germany’s Konrad Adenauer Stiftung
Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.
Kudzai Mashininga
Kudzai Mashininga

Mashininga is an experienced Zimbabwean journalist.

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