Yet again Zambia mourns. The fifth President, Michael Chilufya Sata breathed his last on 28th October 2014 and was laid to rest on 11th November after fourteen days of national mourning. In 2008, we went through a similar chapter following the demise of third Republican President, Levy Mwanawasa. Both these leaders died in office. In 2011, the nation lost a former President, Frederick Chiluba, the second Republican President.
Of the three leaders, two died in Europe while Dr Chiluba died at his home in Zambia. I choose not to dwell on this odd truth which is not unusual on the continent of Africa.
But much can be said about the whole process of managing our leaders especially with respect to their health and wellbeing.
A President as pubic property
The life of a public figure is not an easy one and they are consistently in the limelight, their every move watched. This is the very attention so passionately sought by our leaders before they get to the highest office in the land.
It therefore cannot be disputed that at a certain point, privacy is lost and one becomes public property. This implies that updates on cardinal events and developments in a leader’s life take on great importance with secrecy kicked out. This is simply because the absence of the flow of factual information leads to something even more dangerous, speculation. A lack of information must never be a deliberate norm. At worst it must just be an unplanned omission.
Where speculation thrives, uncertainty sets in and it is this state that poses every form of threat to a nation in every imaginable way-political, economic and social.
Lies or information management?
After Levy Mwanawasa suffered a stroke and was evacuated to France, there were updates given to the nation. One could not argue with what was said because that is all the information that was made available.
But there were questions asked regarding the real state of the President in France. When Dr Mwanawasa died, the suspicions were confirmed that the president had not been as well as the Government had portrayed in its public statements.
The widely remembered update was that Dr Mwanawasa was well and jogging. One can only speculate what state he left Egypt in and whether he was in a coma till his death. But the most important question will always be how truthful the government updates were to the nation.
Fast track to 2014 and it has been evident that the lesson was lost with the demise of President Mwanawasa. When the nation saw President Sata in May during the Labour day and Africa Freedom day celebrations, the whispers began to get loud that he appeared unwell.
The government incessantly denied these claims and insisted that President was well, performing his duties as expected. Subsequent public appearances and prolonged periods of absence from the public eye suggested otherwise.
When President Sata this year appeared to open Parliament, it could not be denied that he was not the vibrant Sata Zambia had come to know. Weeks later, he travelled to the United States of America (USA) for the United Nations General Assembly. He was expected to address the Assembly but did not pitch. An official reason for this “no show” act was not given.
When he returned to Zambia, some still photos were shared showing him leave the hotel in the USA and upon his arrival at the Kenneth Kaunda International Airport. For a man that always engaged with the people and media, seemingly enjoying those moments, it was certainly unlike him to be so invisible. Away from the public eye.
The next we heard or read was the President leaving the country for a medical checkup just before the nation’s Jubilee celebrations. He came back in his casket sadly.
When do leaders cease to be human?
Leaders are human and as such will experience what we all do. But it appears not to be so when they take office. What I have struggled to understand is whether this is their choice or one of the institutions that surround them. A combination of varied stakeholders with unique and veiled or explicit interests.
If our leaders are as human as we are, it must be easy for the government to transparently share the state of health of a leader. Illness solicits prayers, well wishes and depending on the nature of an ailment, even enhanced awareness for the masses. The latter is so because how the leader is managed or he shares his health battles raises the prominence and support for the ordeal. This is especially so for terminal illnesses.
Health matters remain private but what is needed in the case of leaders is not the full disclosure of what one is suffering from but rather the honesty of stating when one is unwell or receiving treatment.
In the recent weeks, we have read about President Zuma of South Africa being unwell, President Fernandez of Argentina being hospitalised and President Kikwete of Tanzania undergoing surgery. This is the cure for false reporting, speculation and the evil of those with ulterior motives that manipulate the lack of truthful information.
From hereon, Zambia specifically and Africa at large must steer away from the secrecy that surrounds the throne, the presidency. Whether this is the fruit of the chiefdoms that have characterized our traditional leadership or not, it is one attribute we must divorce with.
The inevitable future steps
Debate about President Sata’s health has been rife. All types of media had various opinions to prove he was unwell or healthy as well as what needed to happen next.
One argument that never went anywhere was that of appointing a medical board to investigate the president’s capability to carry on. With the experience we have now, this is one issue that begs careful, honest and unbiased consideration. Not just for the good of having it but also for the humane interest of an incumbent leader. Life is sacred and paramount above all else.
It is gratifying to note that the draft republican constitution has covered this well under Article 105 sections (1) to (8). The process stipulates how to handle the President’s health and performance with the initiation of the process reposed in the National Assembly.
This varies slightly from the current constitution which in Article 36 requires Cabinet to initiate this action. It perhaps explains the inertia surrounding the decision to determine the President’s state of health.
However, life and history have been kind enough to Zambia with the combined loss of three presidents we have suffered. Based on this, the formulation and enacting of our laws must always be motivated by the greater good beyond individuals.
Time to get back home
Like the vast majority of Zambians, I too have felt sad and mourned the passing of our leaders Dr Levy Mwanawasa, Dr Frederick Chiluba and now Mr Michael Sata. But my thoughts transcend this moment and our country.
It is time for our leaders to question why they must still die in foreign hospitals. Both our third and fifth presidents have died in office and while in a foreign land. The vision of those that follow after them must be to invest in our health infrastructure,not only for their good but the ultimate benefit of citizens.
This appears to be an African problem, the subtle verdict on the poor state of our hospitals and facilities. President Sata aggressively undertook the construction of roads, schools and hospitals around the country. The politics of personal signatures where one discontinues what a predecessor did are archaic. Continuity offers more progress than unnecessary disruption.
Therefore, the next set of leaders must be burdened with the need to improve health facilities so that their treatment is done within Zambia. Unusual as it may sound but the next Zambian president must die in Zambia.
Farewell President Sata
Our fifth President is gone and has been laid to rest. But as he has departed, he has left us lessons we need to pick. This may not be something he planned but in the circumstances of his presidency and passing, there are questions we must ask.
Key among these is at what point must we move beyond rhetoric and perfunctory statements when a leader is unwell? It does not help to swim in secrecy even when the writing may be on the wall. Further, our constitution, guidelines and politics must take cognizance of the fact that life is sacred and must be safeguarded. Not individual interests that jeopardize the very essence of one’s being.
It further calls for those that have the opportunity to influence any leader to be honest with them at all times. The inner circle, family, friends and even we the ordinary people all must carry this load. Social media has been an indication of this. Some people emotionally tore each other apart just at the mention and suggestion that President Sata was unwell. The print media too found themselves constrained due to either a lack of information or editorial limitations.
Alas lessons have been learnt and we have bade farewell to a man that led this nation for three years. A man that added immense value as an Opposition leader, unrivaled to this day.
Whichever way we look at it, the ultimate call on one’s life is made by God. He has brought the curtain down on President Sata. And we remain alive, challenged to improve where we must.
To our current, incoming and future leaders, take heed.
Go well President Michael Chilufya Sata.