Leaders and their health: It is complicated!

Sunday September 1 2019


By Erick Mwakibete

The health of political leaders is always a matter of interest to the rest of the country or the region depending on what kind of influence they wield beyond the confines of their political borders. While most constitutions around the world mentions something about “sound mind”, much of the rest about the health status of political leaders is vague or not mentioned at all.

Times have changed from the time when states came into existence in their current shapes but some things about politics have not changed and in fact even predates states, like the health of a political leader being linked to the survival of their kingdom or political dynasty.

The world has moved from the times of rulers declaring that they were the state, or that after them it’s the deluge, but depending on the country’s level of political development or organization, that is relatively still the same in many parts of the world. It is still difficult to tell apart the acts of some states and those of the rulers.

While in some countries the health of their leaders is a matter of personal privacy, like Germany, where a visibly shaking Angela Merkel on several occasions did not prompt calls for her to resign or result in court cases to test her fitness to continue serving despite her huge influence on European affairs, that would certainly not be the case in an African political setting or any other political setting where too much power is concentrated in a single individual.

It is for this reason you see all sorts of antics from rulers of certain countries who show their fitness to continue ruling by firing at certain targets while riding horses, others demonstrate combat skills. In short, the image projected is one of strength, to keep political hyenas at bay or in the shadows for as long as is possible.

It is dangerous for a political leader to be sick or frail in this part of the world.


For that reason, we hear a lot about presidents on this continent going to Europe for all sorts of medical care, with “medical check-up” commonly thrown around, even though that could take months.

Or you hear of political leaders taking extended vacations with reasons not specified. In some cases, the rumor mills go in the overdrive with intense speculation about the health of a president who is abroad in a hospital, and the state machinery kicks in, with all sorts of spokespersons denying that the “big man” is sick, only for death to come calling.

There were times when the deteriorating health condition of a ruler led to attempted coups or successful coups. In one case, soldiers took over after the “big man” had died of cancer.

Under normal circumstances, the health of any person is considered a “private” matter that is between the individual and his or her doctors. That is even enshrined in laws. However, it all changes once political leaders come into the mix.

Just where do you draw the line between the privacy of the individual who happens to have the levers of power in his or her hands to the needs of the public which he is but (theoretically, of course) a servant? How much should they know about their leaders health conditions?

The simple answer would be the people have the right to know. The other simple answer is that it is up to the individual to decide how much to let the public know of his or health.

But, with power in the mix, there are no such simple answers.

The “big men” who have concentrated power in their hands as soon as they rose to power, would want to make sure that they influence matters from the grave. If not the dying making sure they have tied the living to their succession plans then the living want to make sure that the dying/dead do not wreck the boat for the living.

On and on, the wheel spins regardless of whatever constitutional arrangements in place. In an African setting where the state itself continues to struggle for its own existence, it’s not just about the dying/dead, it is equally as much about the living and what to do with all the power concentrated in the hands of an individual on his way out.