/ 28 July 2017

Is Tsvangirai too ill to be president?

Better days: Joice Mujuru
Better days: Joice Mujuru

Morgan Tsvangirai is ill, and has been for several years. The veteran Zimbabwean opposition leader has colon cancer, and he regularly visits South Africa for treatment.

He is not the only high-profile Zimbabwean politician who needs medical attention abroad. Infamously, President Robert Mugabe is a frequent visitor to a hospital in Singapore; he was there again earlier this month. His critics say he spends more time in Singapore than at home.

Among those critics is Tsvangirai’s own party, the Movement for Democratic Change-Tsvangirai (MDC-T).

Here’s party spokesperson Obert Gutu laying into the president in 2015: “Apparently, his health is failing and I think he is not doing himself any good by clinging on to power while he is now in that state of health. It’s time for him to take a bow from the hazardous and extremely demanding job of engaging in active politics.

“He should start writing his memoirs. In fact, I can volunteer to write his biography for absolutely no charge! The old man should simply step down and rest,” said Gutu.

But amid reports of Tsvangirai’s own worsening health, he and the MDC-T seem reluctant to apply the same logic to themselves. He is putting together an opposition coalition to contest the 2018 presidential elections, with himself as presidential candidate, and has dismissed concerns that his health issues will affect his ability to do the job.

“I’m feeling fine. I’m responding well. It takes time,” he said, speaking on a radio talk show this week. “As you know, I’m undergoing treatment. It’s not a new thing. The only surprising thing is when people blow out of proportion and mistake treatment for a death sentence. It’s inhuman to conclude that.

“This misrepresentation is intended to create a certain impression that Tsvangirai is not able to go to the next election because of health reasons. They [political opponents] want to make my health an election issue and unfortunately they will not succeed.”

But whether he likes it or not, his health is an election issue. Being president is demanding and time- consuming; it requires energy and a certain degree of fitness. Zimbabweans are perfectly entitled to question whether the leader of the opposition has the stamina for the big job before they cast their votes.

“While I agree with the argument that one’s health is a private matter, once one declares intention to run for public office, their health become a national issue,” wrote Jealousy Mawarire in a commentary.

Mawarire, as a former spokesperson for rival opposition leader Joice Mujuru, is hardly an impartial voice on this issue. But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.

He added: “It is foolhardy to expect that a leader under the weather can help turn around an economy that is just as sick as their physical body. The state of our economy, the arduous task of arresting the decay of infrastructure and the curbing of rampant corruption in public service needs a focused leader, not someone battling chronic ailments …

“We certainly don’t need a president in 2018 who will be spending most of their time either in South Africa or Singapore receiving medical attention.”

For more on why that is a bad idea, Zimbabweans just have to cast their eyes across their borders to other African countries that have struggled with the same issue.

In Nigeria, for example, the unexpected death of President Umaru Yar’Adua in 2010 plunged the country into political turmoil. And just when the country seemed to have recovered after the election of Muhammadu Buhari in 2015, Buhari himself became ill. He has spent most of this year receiving treatment in London, with Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo left to run the country.

Angolan President José Eduardo dos Santos and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika also received treatment abroad this year, in Barcelona and Paris respectively. Both failed to communicate their health issues effectively, leading to intense and destabilising speculation about who was really running their countries.

Consider, too, the long list of African presidents who have died in office because of ill health, almost always leaving a leadership vacuum in their wake: Zambia’s Michael Sata (2014), Ethiopia’s Meles Zenawi (2012), Ghana’s John Atta Mills (2012), Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika (2012), Guinea-Bissau’s Malam Bacai Sanhá (2012), Gabon’s Omar Bongo (2009) and Guinea’s Lansana Conté (2008).

And that’s just in the past decade.

But two things set Tsvangirai apart from the examples above. The first is his age. At 65 years old, he is still relatively young, especially compared with nonagenarian Mugabe. The second is his candour. To his credit, and again unlike Mugabe, Tsvangirai has been honest about his condition.

But that doesn’t mean that Zimbabweans shouldn’t factor in the opposition leader’s health issues before casting their ballot. In the most literal sense, is Tsvangirai fit for office?