Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia is only the most recent of a series of African leaders to die while in office. Prof. John Atta-Mills of Ghana passed away in July, and Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika before that. Rumors continually swirl about the health of other current presidents, including Zimbabwe’s octogenarian, Robert Mugabe. The health of leaders is often veiled in secrecy, which can make it difficult to plan for potential transitions.
In the days immediately following the death of Atta-Mills, many of those I spoke to in Ghana were sad, but also a little angry. How could he dance and jog on his return from a medical check-up in the US when he knew he was so sick? Former president Jerry Rawlings gave a frank, if rather callous, assessment on the BBC: “I think had he been advised and done something wiser, you know, earlier on, he could have probably survived, you know, for, I don’t know, for another six-seven months…” There was a feeling expressed by some people I spoke to that Prof. Atta-Mills should have taken time off, and taken care of himself. This calls to a more general problem — the secrecy enshrouds the health of leaders sets up governments for moments of crisis. Fortunately, Ghana and Malawi have both managed to pull through with successful transitions, but others may not be so lucky.
Songwe and Kimenyi examine this issue in their op-ed, “The Health of African Leaders: A Call for More Transparency” at Brookings:
As the number of ailing presidents increases, three major issues are emerging: First, the continent demands more transparency regarding it’s leaders’ health; second, democracies need clear term limits; and third, successful democratic transitions require transition processes outlined in the constitution, that are understood and familiar to all. With these safeguards in place, the risks of administrative paralysis, political tension, internal conflict and instability that characterize situations in many African countries could be mitigated. Unfortunately, in many African countries today there is a general lack of clarity around term limits and even less clarity and agreement on succession: Term limits are changed on a rolling basis, and constitutions are amended frequently.