Those Sick African Leaders

Reading time 6 min.

Former Guinean president died after a long illness. But only a few days before his death, Lasana Conté’s entourage assured everyone of his good health. There are also claims that the Gabonese president, Omar Bongo Ondimba, might be suffering from a long illness which could be the reason behind a recent “slight” health discomfort he is said to have experienced. The health of African presidents is shrouded in mystery. Umaru Yar’Adua (Nigeria), Mamadou Tandja (Niger), Idriss Deby Itno (Tchad)…

62 year old George W. Bush, outgoing president of the United States, brilliantly ducked and dodged home-made Iraqi projectiles (shoes) fired at him by a very angry reporter. In Africa, only a small handful of presidents will be capable of such physical feats, although officially all of them are in great shape.

A couple of days before his death, Lasana Conté was supposedly busily working and still carrying out state functions. Guinean Communication minister, Tibou Kamara, who appeared on national television to deny rumours surrounding the president’s death, had failed to deny the fact that Lasana Conté had been sent to Havana, Cuba, for intensive medical care.

The president’s state of health grew worse during his final years in office. However, during his country’s 2003 presidential elections, Lasana Conté invented a new way, worthy of an African leader, of voting. Bed-ridden and incapable of walking, the ballot box was taken to him… in his car ! A diabetic, Mr. Conté’s health got worse after he was diagnosed with Leukemia in 2006, posits the BBC.

A tightly muzzled Guinean media had no right to talk about issues concerning the president’s health. A local weekly newspaper, Le Lynx – La Lance, dared publish a photograph which showed a rather sickly president and was immediately sanctioned. The paper’s editor was summoned by the govenrment and the week’s edition cleared off newspaper stands across the country.

A remarkably organised silence with respect to the health of presidents has always reigned on the continent. Gabonese president, Omar Bongo Ondimba, 73, who has spent about forty years as his country’s head, is said to be in a deplorable state. Some rumours even claim that he is HIV positive. But Omar Bongo Ondimba has rejected all rumours lock, stock and barrel : « to say that Bongo is HIV positive is a grave accusation which questions his state of health as well as the country’s future » he is quoted as saying in Airy Routier’s book, As white as black, excerpts of which appeared in the magazine Jeune Afrique. « Even the journal Jeune Afrique, now known as L’Intelligent, as well as other magazines, insist that Bongo is sick. Some chose to do so explicitly while others cover their tracks with heavy innuendos. But what is Bongo suffering from ? who examined him ? where ? who is treating him ? » the Gabonese president asked. Only last month, Omar Bongo, the longest serving African head of state, suffered a «slight health discomfort». A slight health discomfort which, nonetheless, caused his admission at the emergency ward of the El-Rapha polyclinic and later at the Melen military hospital in Libreville, reports Backchich. The government has so far not issued any official statement.

Bouteflika’s haemorrhagic ulcer

In Niger, everyone’s mouth is sealed concerning the president’s health condition. Last November, an impromptu private visit to Morocco by president Mamadou Tandja, 70, triggered a real panick in the country. In the absence of an offcial explanation, pertaining to his trip, some of the speculated information included ; an emergency medical evacuation ; terminal stage of a liver cancer ; relapse of a badly treated prostate infection… In May 2001, a local daily newspaper, Mat Info, quoted Radio France International (RFI) saying «the head of state was in Morocco for medical reasons». Mat Info, was later sued by Mamadou Tandja for defamation. While his health has become enigmatic, Mamadou Tandja could well be on his way to seeking another term in office. Although Niger’s constitution does not allow for a third term after a second 5 year term, it is reported that some members of parliament are already working towards another third three-year-term for the president « for a peaceful transition».

Should this « third-term » amendment be achieved, Niger’s leader would join a long list of African heads of state to have done the same. The last person to have encouraged this amendment is Algerian president, Bouteflika. 71 years old and shrunk by a mysterious illness, nothing stops Bouteflika from another term in office. After his six-day admission at a French Military hospital in 2005, the official Algerian report indicated a « digestive problem », contrary to the official medical report from the hospital which said that a surgical operation had been called for after the discovery of a «haemorrhagic ulcer». Mr. Bouteflika, it is said, has since been cured from the disease.

Idriss Deby : « I am in great shape »

« I am in great shape now », said Idriss Deby in 2003, in an interview with Jeune Afrique. But according to his country’s opposition party, the president of Chad is seriously ill and has been warned not to consume alcoholic beverages. It is even claimed that he has hired turkish doctors to take care of him on an around-the-clock basis. In the Chadian political circles, there is talk of cirrhosis and gout. At the time of his interview, Mr. Deby said that his doctors had identitifed problems in his colon due to his bad diet. There is no cancer and absolutely nothing to worry about. However, for about three years now, the Chadian president does not go out without his walking stick. Some of his compatriots are witnesses to his detetiorating health.

Suspicions are running amok on the continent : Umaru Yar’Adua of Nigeria, Paul Biya of Cameroon… are both suspected of hiding severe illnesses. The late president of Togo, Gnassingbé Eyadema, did his level best to be taken for a «superman» when he told Jeune Afrique that he had never had any health problems, if not for a dysentery he once suffered in his youth. At the end of his rule, in 2003, he looked sick, weak and skeletal. Nonetheless, he never revealed his disease (or diseases) to the Togolese.

Sick rulers are not only found in Africa. The West has had its fair share. François Mittérrand, the former French president, ruled France for fourteen years despite the fact that he suffered from a cancer. However, in Africa, presidents tend to personify power itself… their state of health thus becomes reflection of their ability to govern. It is in this light that the attorney general of the appeal court in the Littoral province of Cameroon told Pius Njawé, director of a daily magazine, Messager, during one of his numerous law suits : « Mr. Njawé, even if the president of the country is sick, you are to say that he is in perfect shape ! »

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