Ruling with one foot in the grave

On the morning of April 5, in his official residence in Lilongwe, President Bingu wa Mutharika of Malawi had a fatal heart attack. That was not the end of his presidency, however. Even as his corpse decomposed, he would go on to govern for two more days while his staff pretended that everything was just fine.

Mutharika’s death was unexpected, and so, as his would-be successors fought among themselves, his administration insisted that he was still alive until they were blue in the face. Not, admittedly, as blue as poor Mutharika himself, whose body was flown to a hospital in South Africa for “medical treatment” in a desperate attempt to keep up the facade.

It was only on the morning of April 7 that his death was officially confirmed, and the vice-president allowed to assume power — and only after a pointed intervention from South African diplomats, who threatened to break the news themselves.

The Mutharika incident — let’s call it “Weekend at Bingu’s” — is the only documented example of an African president literally ruling from beyond the grave. But others have at least one foot in it, fatally compromising their ability to do their jobs.

Right now, in Algeria, 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is seeking his fifth term. He has been in charge since 1999. But he was paralysed after a stroke in 2013 and has not spoken in public since then.

Most observers believe he is too ill to wield real power. Video footage and photographs of the president, showing a wizened, decrepit man with barely the strength to sign his own name, support this diagnosis. Algerians agree, judging by the tens of thousands of people who have braved the brutal response from state security forces to demonstrate, calling for Bouteflika to step down before next year’s election.

In response, Bouteflika — or the generals pulling his strings — has promised to leave office within a year of being elected. That’s assuming his body holds out for that long.

Another president who appears to be governing from his deathbed is Gabon’s Ali Bongo, who had a stroke in Saudi Arabia in October. He has returned home just twice since then, choosing to convalesce in Morocco instead.

Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari made the same call when he became ill with an undisclosed illness, seeking medical attention in the United Kingdom. Buhari had to hand over power to his vice-president for months at a time during his first term in office. In the absence of official information, speculation about the president’s health grew so wild that a rumour gained traction that Buhari had died and been replaced by a body double — a man named Jubril from Sudan.

Buhari was forced to issue an official denial. “It’s the real me, I assure you,” the president told a press conference. The denial did not allay everyone’s suspicions — after all, that’s exactly what Jubril would have said.

Buhari’s illness did not prevent him from successfully seeking re-election this year, which means that Nigerians are almost certain to be subjected to another five years of rumours and misinformation about the president’s health. And they have every right to be concerned: Umaru Yar’Adua, who served as president of the country from 2007 until 2010, died in office after a long illness, which was mostly concealed from the public.

His condition precipitated a constitutional crisis because he had neglected to make proper succession arrangements before he became too weak to do so.

Although the Nigerian government likes to pretend its presidents are healthy when they are not, the opposite applies to terror groups: since 2009, security forces have repeatedly announced the death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, only for him to turn up later in mocking YouTube videos.

It is not hard to find other presidents who remained in power despite being obviously unfit to do so. The frail, nonagenarian Robert Mugabe would fall asleep at summits and stumble down stairs before being whisked to Singapore for mysterious medical treatments. Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia disappeared from public view a month before he died, leaving it to his hapless spokespeople to deny there was a problem. In Guinea, Lansana Conté threatened journalists who dared mention his poor health, only to prove them all right by dying without a succession plan. Just a day after Conté’s death, the military seized power in a coup d’état.

It is not just presidents who cling on for dear life; opposition leaders are susceptible to the same disease. Neither Morgan Tsvangirai nor Étienne Tshisekedi would relinquish power before they died, arguably dealing mortal blows to the fractured opposition prior to elections in Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo respectively. Nor is it just an African problem: Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez died in power, for example, leaving his country in total disarray, and Oman’s Sultan Qaboos will not publicly anoint an heir, despite widespread reports about his failing health.

Being president is a physically demanding job. If Bingu wa Mutharika and Abdelaziz Bouteflika can teach us anything, it is that the concept of “fitness to hold office” should be taken as literally as possible.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison, The Continent
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.

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