The Politics Of Death And Illness
University of Cape Coast, Cape Coast.
18th June, 2012
Last Saturday, President Mills left for the United States to be evaluated by his Doctors. Normally, this should not get much attention from the public. However, the events and comments before and after his departure raise important issues that must be addressed.
First, it has been reported and confirmed that on Saturday, there were rumours that the President was dead. Indeed, at the airport before his departure, the President himself referred to those rumours in asserting that he was and is alive. Unfortunately, this is not the first time that such rumours have surfaced about the President. While the rumours themselves were bad, the report that there may have been jubilation in some quarters is disgusting. If our politics have gotten to where people can celebrate the reported death of a President, our nation is indeed in trouble. When U.S. President Reagan was shot in 1981, he was rushed to the nearest hospital in Washington D.C. While the Republican President was being wheeled into surgery by the tense medical team, he sought to lighten the mood by remarking, “I hope you are all Republicans?” Without missing a beat, the head of the team replied, “At least for today, Mr. President.” When the head of the team made that remark, he was underlining the fact that there are some things, like a President’s health and life that does not or should not lend itself to partisanship. Admirably, perhaps prompted by good intentions and his shock at reports that some may have celebrated the President’s reported death, the NPP Presidential candidate issued a gracious message of support and encouragement to the President. In it Nana Akufo-Addo hoped that President Mills will be back soon to resume his Presidency. Surprisingly, some in the NDC, including the General Secretary have tried to cast Nana’s message in a negative light. Mr. Asiedu Nketia questioned the sincerity of the NPP’s concern, calling it “crocodile tears” because “the rank and file were jubilating.” To hold the NPP leadership responsible for the insensitive behavior of people who may be members is unfair. It would be the equivalent of holding the NDC leadership responsible for the rumours of the President’s ill-health that were circulated widely through text messages by some of his primary opponents and party members in 2006. While those who may have celebrated the rumours of the President’s death were wrong, his party’s eagerness to court cheap public sympathy after the President’s departure is reprehensible. Indeed, the spin-Doctors for the President were all describing the President, before his departure as “hale and hearty”. Really? When are we going to stop spin and talk to one another as mature adults? People who have been rumoured to be dead for a day do not generally leave for check-ups “hale and hearty.”
Before moving on, I must decry the meanness of spirit and crass opportunism that seem to be engulfing our politics—day by day.
While we must rightly condemn these rumours and the evil people behind them, we must acknowledge the context that gave some credibility to these rumours. First, the President, despite the endless and unquenchable speculation about his health, has chosen confusion over clarity in addressing the issue. In the absence of facts, rumour-mongers (apologies to late Gen. Archeampong) have filled the vacuum with their concoctions. Furthermore, all over the preceding week, despite outbreaks of violence in many regions, the President had stayed out of public view. Since most people expected the President to visit the places of disturbances or at least make a statement to reassure the public, the President’s absence and silence fuelled speculations that maybe he was not well. Indeed, even the timing and the circumstances of his departure, despite the oft-used phrase “hale and hearty”, would lend some credibility to speculations that the President was not entirely well.
The question of how to handle a leader’s health have always been delicate. A review of American history shows that quite a number of American Presidents had illnesses that were not disclosed to the public. Amongst these were John Kennedy’s Addison disease and Chester Arthur’s kidney disease. In addition to these, there were undisclosed strokes and heart attacks. Indeed, the most controversial illness of all was in one who never got to the oval office. In 1972, after the nomination of Senator Eagleton to be the running-mate of Democrat George McGovern, it was discovered that he had had electroshock therapy for Major Depression twenty years earlier. The disclosure led to a firestorm that led to the Senator leaving the ticket. McGovern lost the election anyway. Ironically, the greatest and longest-serving President of United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, did it all from a wheel-chair because he was paralyzed by Poliomyelitis. This shows that one can be effective or even great as a President despite illness.
Currently, most American Presidents disclose their ailments to the public quite routinely. Indeed, Presidential candidates releasing their health records have become quite routine in America. While this has been happening, the rest of the world too have been keeping up with the practice. In the last year, Argentine President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and others have disclosed their illnesses. Indeed, one of the most moving scenes in the last year was that of the Argentine President’s supporters holding a vigil outside a hospital where she was having surgery. One of the signs at the solemn vigil read, “Strength, Christina”. As the examples of these leaders show, people will rally to a leader when he or she is not well. Of course, sometimes, the illnesses of leaders is handled badly to the detriment of their nations. For example, when Stalin collapsed from his stroke in 1953, it is reported that his Ministers feared him so much that none of them could approach him to ascertain how he was doing. As they stood a few yards away cowering in fear, life gradually ebbed out of their leader. A few years ago, in Nigeria, when President Umaru Y’ ar Ardua took ill, his team resorted to obfuscation and lies. Indeed, a few days before he died, they were still trying to convince Nigerians that the dying President will be at work soon.
Before I look forward, I cannot help posing this question to all our leaders: If our healthcare system is as good as you claim when seeking our votes, why are you always going outside for your care? If it is as bad as your behavior suggests, why do you not make it better? Sekou Toure, Nkrumah, Mobutu, Kabila, Houphoet Boigny, to mention just a few, all died abroad. Why?? Looking forward, I suggest the following.
First, our leaders should trust us with details about their health. If they do, we will understand them more and they certainly will get more sympathy. It is rare to meet a sixty year old man or woman who has no illness. Being President is not like being an athlete or soccer star and as FDR showed in American, you can have some ailments and still be a great President.
Second, we need a mechanism to assure ourselves from time to time that our President is well and able to perform the duties of his office. This is important because throughout history, aides to leaders have shown a tendency to act in the leaders’ name whenever they can. Recently, a lowly official of the Electricity Corporation was sacked in the President’s name. If this could happen, what else can be done in a President’s name if he is unable to exercise the powers of his office while the rest of us are not aware? Could someone send us to war or order payments of gargantuan sums or do something silly in the President’s name? We should, at least once a year, have the President’s physician, who must be a Ghanaian, release a statement that he has examined the President and that in his Professional opinion; the President is “hale and hearty” and able to perform the duties of his office.
Finally, as a people, we must be more loving and accommodating of each other. Wishing others dead is wrong. Playing politics with the health of our leaders is wrong. Illness is non-partisan. It has no ethnic or gender bias. It can strike any of us. I remember that Paa Willie, who had a ditty predicting his death during the 1979 campaign, attended quite a few funerals for those who were predicting his death before he died.
Let us all pray for our President’s safe return and his presence on the ballot in December so that he can be retired with our thumbs while “hale and hearty”, based on the will of the majority.
Arthur Kobina Kennedy