Former Vice President, under President Jerry Rawlings’ second term, Prof. John Atta-Mills, currently the presidential candidate of the main opposition the National Democratic Congress (NDC), health has become a public scrutiny in the run up to the December, 2008 general elections. Despite clear politicization of Atta-Mills’ health, the fact goes beyond politics, the issues being as traditional as they are global. But politics, as a dirty game, and Ghanaians huge appetite for wide-eyed conspiracy theories take the better part of Atta-Mills’ health talks.
Either for immense political enticement to portray themselves as forever fit or in a Ghana which culture normally makes leaders, both traditional and orthodox, appear immortal, Ghanaian political leaders has to project high degree of robustness. In the face of his health inquiry, Atta-Mills, a former university soccer star and fitness addict, has stated, jokingly, that he can run Ghana-wide. Like elsewhere in the world, an illness of a political leader means his political machinery is in trouble - the circle around the political leader, the media, advisers, and, most importantly, the Ghanaian public.
From traditional rulers to political leaders, the health of Ghanaian leaders has been of concern to Ghanaians, more so in the increasingly open democracy. At certain time some thought the Asantehene (King of the Asante ethnic group), Otumfuo Osei Tutu 11, was so sick that he is dead as some have been saying of Atta-Mills. "An illness to the president is not just a personal matter. It is a devastating public crisis," noted Jerrold Post, a political psychologist and professor at America’s George Washington University on the health of American political leaders, where from George Washington to Woodrow Wilson to incumbent George W. Bush illnesses such as multiple strokes to Alzheimer disease to deafness in one ear to back surgery to cardiac risk to pancreatic cancer to post-infarct mental state to polio to stroke have been critical to the health of the American presidency.
Despite having Ghana’s top health care team to address their everyday health concerns and emergency situations, Ghanaian leaders’ health is one of the most examined issues in the country’s politics. From first president Kwame Nkrumah (who played tennis and practiced yoga) to Prime Minister Dr. Kofi Busia (who played tennis) to President Hilla Liman (who liked strolling and played tennis) to two-time President Jerry Rawlings (who projected high energy, youthfulness, and strength, and did some athletics) to incumbent President John Kufor (who plays tennis), Ghana’s political leaders (here the military junta leaders such as Gen. Akwesi Afrifa to Gen. Ankrah to Gen. Kutu Acheampong to Gen. F.W.K. Akuffo to Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings) have not been publicly seen to take off their state duties and go on holidays as other heads of state, prime ministers or presidents elsewhere in the world do.
Rawlings collapsed on state duty, due to exhaustion and fatigue, and was forced by his medical team to rest a bit. President Kufour changed that, demonstrating the mortality of a political leader, by publicly announcing his vacationing for some weeks for rest and ease pressures from his national duties a bit. It is no doubt that Atta-Mills announced to Ghanaian his going to South Africa for medical treatment, and some rest, his intense door-to-door campaign, as Rawlings told Ghanaians, having effect on him. Initially, Atta-Mills and his NDC had said he has gone to South African on “a purely private visit.” Then, as the speculation deepened, the NDC spinned that Atta-Mills was undergoing “a normal medical checkup” in South Africa.
As Atta-Mills exudes, Ghanaian political leaders have physical strains. President Jerry Rawlings, for instance, caught virus while helping to clean a deep and big gutter at the Nima slum, a suburb of Accra, and is said to be responsible for butt of high fever and his collapse when on state duty. Prime Minister Kofi Busia had an eye problem, worsened by his long-running diabetes, and has to travel to London, U.K for medical treatment. President Kufour was rumoured to have got cancer in his first term but quickly said it is not true – he has since projected immense fitness and restfulness.
The political situations aside, just the day-to-day demands of being political leader, especially in an election year like 2008, are astonishing. The political leaders could never turn it off. Ghanaians used to wonder where Nkrumah and Rawlings get their energy from to drive their presidencies. The assassination attempts against Nkrumah, the spectre of death threats against Rawlings, and some rumour that Atta-Mills, 63, is dead, showed that Ghanaian political leaders face near constant, sometimes all too real threats on their lives.
Experts explains that a convinced degree of stress can make people "more alert, more focused" during a crisis, "but the data on sustained stress shows a decrease in functioning over time, even though a person may believe he is at the height of his powers." In the long run, experts say, "stress tends to bring out not the best in people,” as we saw in Nkrumah, the early years of Acheampong and Rawlings “but magnifies the flaws that are already there."
Nkrumah and Liman, for example, suffered from severe depression after their overthrow. Oftentimes, the political leaders' many demands can impair their mental health. Liman was said to have been disoriented by sustained lethal squabbling by Peoples National Party big wigs that put his administration in disarray and led to his overthrow in 1981. As the internal bickering of his administration crisis unfolded, several leading PNP insiders said President Liman withdrawal to himself and rumors of heavy drinking of alcohol and coffee and smoking made the rounds. Liman showed paranoid tendencies, especially when his political mentor, Alhaji Moro Igala, was believed to have been poisoned to death in the ensuing in-house party fighting, that put terrible strains on Liman’s decision-making, leading to his under-rating security reports that there are plots by Rawlings and his cohorts to overthrow his regime.
In the convoluted Atta-Mills health discussions, Ghana’s democracy is growing, the intense interest reveal how the political leaders are being analyzed in the larger progress of Ghana. This has provided potential presidential material for the public and the media chew in the on-going democratic growth, drawing examples from different parts of the world. The Atta-Mills health buzz also demonstrates the enrichment of Ghana’s developing democracy unlike the long years of one-party regimes (6 years) and military juntas (21 years) where Ghanaians couldn’t discuss the health of their leaders in relation to their development process openly and without fear.