Sata’s Health: To disclose or not, this is the question!

President Sata with Catholic Priest in Church on Friday

President Sata with Catholic Priest in Church on Friday. Photo source: Post Newspaper

Contrary to prevailing opinion among supporters of the PF government, the fact that Republican President Michael Sata attended the Good Friday Mass at St. Ignatius Parish Church on Friday 29th March and commissioned the 91-kilometer Luangwa Bridge – Feira Road project in Luangwa District the following day on Saturday 30th March does not, in and of itself, provide compelling reason to believe that the president is well physically nor does it answer the disturbing and persistent questions surrounding his alleged ill health.

And this is also despite the President himself trying to reassure the nation and his political enemies about his good health by saying he is well and telling a journalist to check if he looked like a person who is dying.

The president’s actions on Friday are actually reminiscent of late President of Ghana Prof. John Atta Mills’s denial of persistent rumors and speculation regarding his health, shortly before he died of cancer in 2012. It is also despite the screaming capitalized headlines proclaiming the President’s good health pumped out by his propaganda echo chamber the Post newpaper, the public media, PF cadres and supporters.
Many well-meaning and peace-loving Zambians still want this very important national issue settled by an independent and objective panel of physicians.

With all due respect to his Excellency the President, many Zambians calling for the full disclosure of the current condition of his health are not doing so out of malicious intent but are simply doing so because they care about him as the leader of the nation and care about the political stability and fortunes of their beloved country Zambia. What is more, recent historical facts regarding sitting African presidents and their health have also largely contributed to making this political debate very relevant and necessary. To date, a total of 22 sitting African presidents have died while in office. Of these, 13 (i.e. 68%) were rumoured to be ill and undergoing medical treatment while in power, a fact which they and their propaganda machinery constantly and vehemently denied until the day the presidents suddenly dropped dead! Only one sitting African president, Cameroun’s President Ahmadou Ahidjo is on record to have ceded power due to ill health in 1982, after ruling for 22 years.

The then PF opposition leader Michael Sata himself demonstrated the vital importance of the need to establish the truth regarding the health of a sitting president when he formally queried the Chief Justice regarding the health of late President Levy. P Mwanawasa in 2006.

Sata seated churchI am therefore pretty sure and confident that President Michael Sata is alive to the fact that the need for the Zambian people to know the condition of his health is a matter of extreme national importance and concealing it against his better judgment upon the advice of those wishing to protect their own narrow political and economic interests will not do him or the nation any good!

While the phenomenon of concealing a leader’s health is not unique to Africa, the situation on the continent poses some worrying and unique concerns due to the fragile nature of democracy and democratic institutions of governance.

For instance, none of the sitting presidents in the West who concealed their illness, e.g. Ronald Reagan of the USA or Francoise Mitterrand of France died while in office. It is important to note that African politicians are driven by instincts no baser than those of their Western counterparts.
However, the existence of strong systems and institutions of governance in the West does not lend itself to the uncertainties that African countries face in a time of transition when or if a president dies in office. Nor does the temptation and political opportunism politicians are faced with in the West easily overwhelm them as it so often does with African politicians who easily succumb in the face of weak and compromised systems and institutions of governance.

The Republican Constitution in Article 36 is very clear regarding the procedures to be followed regarding the question of the physical or mental capacity of the President to discharge the functions of his office. However, this does not preclude the fact that the president himself can, in the interest of transparency and good governance, decide to make public the state of his health.

This act would be in the best interest of the president himself and the people of Zambia at large. It would be an unprecedented and highly admirable decision given that, unlike in most Western countries where presidential candidates are obliged to disclose their health reports before they are vetted, Zambian presidential candidates are not obliged by any law to do so.

Unfortunately, under the circumstances where both the president and his supporters are adamant in denying any rumors that the president is physically or mentally an unwell (without even providing any factual proof to the contrary), and given the historical trend on this issue in African politics, the chances of such a voluntary act being undertaken by the president are next to impossible.

And people calling for a public disclosure of his health cannot force him to do so against his will because he is protected by law. The only way to try and sway him to take this course of action is for as many honest and well-meaning Zambians to continue appealing to his morality, integrity, reason and commonsense as the leader of this country whose Constitution and integrity he swore to uphold and whose citizens he swore to serve.

Having endured a painful experience of our own with the sudden passing of our late President Levy P. Mwanawasa in 2008 and having witnessed the recent death of another African sitting president the late John Atta Mills of Ghana, we as Zambians can have no excuse for not taking this current issue seriously and giving it the important attention that it so rightly deserves.

We can also learn a very good lesson by taking a leaf from the recent death, after a two year battle against cancer, of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez whose government was quite transparent about his illness, treatment in Cuba and eventual death.

Whether this transparency was necessitated by choice or circumstance does not take away the fact that it was a good and rational decision for both the Venezuelan government and its people. Zambians must and can do the right thing.

By Naver Chayelela