/ 12 March 2015

Zambians weary of sick presidents

Tough post: The poor health of Zambian leader Edgar Lungu
Even before the first case of Covid-19 was confirmed in March 2020, Zambia’s flight from being a model of democracy in Africa to a disguised authoritarianism had already taken off.

Zambian President Edgar Lungu, who collapsed while officiating at a women’s day event in Lusaka at the weekend, arrived in South Africa for specialist treatment, raising concern among Zambians over the health of their leader.

Lungu (58) was rushed Maina Soko Military Hospital, near State House in the capital, after he collapsed. He was discharged on Monday evening.

His press aide, Amos Chanda, told the nation that the president “has left the hospital to complete the resting regime prescribed by doctors”.

The president was elected in January after former president Michael Sata died in October last year.

Lungu left the country for Johannesburg on Tuesday afternoon after witnessing the filing of nomination papers for party member Lawrence Sichalwe, who is seeking to succeed him in Parliament for the seat he previously held.

Cause of collapse
The cause of Lungu’s collapse was not clear. The official statement released immediately after the incident said he had “traces of malaria” and suffered from extreme fatigue. However, subsequent statements from the president’s office said he was suffering from a narrowing of the oesophagus which needed a “high-tech medical procedure which is currently unavailable in Zambia”.

“Therefore he has been referred for specialised treatment abroad,” according to this statement.

It further says the narrowing of the oesophagus was a recurrence of a condition for which he had been treated at a local hospital 30 years ago. The statement did not specify when Lungu would have the operation and journalists at the press briefing were not allowed to ask questions.

After the death of two presidents in office, some Zambians are expressing concern about Lungu’s health. The first was Levy Mwanawasa, who died in 2008, followed by Sata.

The opposition Forum for Democracy and Development (FDD), which came third in the January election, said Lungu’s collapse was “very unfortunate”.

“That is embarrassing and it should not happen to anybody, whether be it the president or an ordinary person,” said the FDD’s spokesperson, Antonio Mwanza.

He said the president’s medical personnel should take his health issues more seriously. “The doctors should critically look at his history and advise him on what he should do and what he should not do,” said Mwanza.

The FDD spokesperson insinuated that Lungu’s problem was linked to alcohol.

“He has to stay away from the bottle. I think this has come out very clearly that he drinks,” Mwanza said. “If he feels this [being the president] is becoming too much of a burden on his health, let him quit. He should never forgo his personal health at the expense of the presidency.”

Lungu, a former defence minister, is to serve the remainder of Sata’s term, until elections in 2016.

During his campaign, Lungu’s camp had to issue denials that he was not well. At one point Lungu even offered to undergo a medical checkup to prove his good health.

This is not the first time Lungu’s health has come under the spotlight. During Sata’s presidency, critics accused the government of covering up Lungu’s poor health – something the government denied vehemently.

Most Zambians, however, were sympathetic towards Lungu perhaps because of improved communication about the president’s health. When Sata fell ill, there was widespread criticism over the lack of information about his treatment in London where he later died.

Government transparency
This week, the Zambia Medical Association commended the government for being transparent about Lungu’s health.

The Foundation for Democratic Process also observed “a marked improvement in the disclosure of the president’s ill health”.

Its executive director, McDonald Chipenzi, told a local radio station that the openness exhibited by the government was a sign of responsibility.

“I think State House is trying to be extremely open and transparent in the manner they’re handling the health of our president,” said Chipenzi.

“That is how it should be. They’re taking great responsibility, great care and, indeed, updating the Zambian people on this issue. He is state property.”

On the other hand, some have accused the government of not being truthful about the cause of his collapse. Sera Longwe, the chairperson of the Nongovernmental Organisations Co-ordinating Council, said the government should not lie to the people of Zambia about the illness and health of Lungu.

“They should not be lying to us. First they told us that he had malaria, but can traces of malaria cause a person to collapse?” she asked in a report carried by the country’s largest private newspaper, the Post.

The government has come out strongly against the NGO council’s statement, saying the newspaper “has an agenda against the president”.

Zambians appear weary of having to look after another ill head of state with some openly expressing their despondency at the ­prospect of another vote.

“I think I will not vote,” said Malamo Mukonde, a 58-year-old woman from Chongwe, a small town east of Lusaka, when she was asked what she thought about the president’s illness. “We’re just from voting. I think this is too much for the nation.”

The FDD’s Mwanza called for thorough scrutiny when selecting leaders for the office of the president. He said this was a constitutional problem.

“The presidency has become a job where you don’t have to prove your worth. It has just become that cheap and easy,” said Mwanza.

“The level of scrutiny – be it moral, intellectual, health – has to be improved,” he said. “The Constitution just says the leader should be a Zambian who is above 35 years and that is all.”

Newspaper threatened

An incensed Zambian minister of information and chief government spokesperson, Chishimba Kambwili, threatened The Post newspaper this week after it wrote that President Edgar Lungu collapsed because of an alcohol-related problem.

He said government would not tolerate unfair attacks disguised as editorials by The Post’s editor, Fred M’membe. “Does anyone understand Mr M’membe’s thinking to put in his newspaper such a childish headline? For him to write that the president collapsed because of alcohol is not only evil but also untrue,” Kambwili said.

“If he [M’membe] continues on this self-destructive path, government will have no choice but to stop buying and also advertising in The Post.”

On Monday the newspaper carried a mocking headline: “Chagwa Agwa” – literally translated as “a person who often falls has fallen”. This was in apparent reference to Lungu’s middle name – Chagwa.

The newspaper followed that up with a Tuesday editorial in which it catalogued the number of times the president had collapsed and said he was a drunkard.

The Post‘s ombud, Sheikh Chifuwe, said: “It is very difficult … to respond to certain threats. We are not frightened. Our responsibility is to the people of this country. We have a duty to give them correct information as it unfolds. I think he [the minister] is ignorant. If he can check how much business we are getting from government … most of it has not been paid for. So, we do not understand how he can come up with such a position.” – Charles Mafa