The mystery of Africa’s disappearing presidents

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

President Peter Mutharika returned to Malawi on Sunday Oct. 16, just as he’d promised. Mutharika left to attend the United Nations General Assembly mid-September and just didn’t come back. His cagey communications team would not divulge the leader’s itinerary, sparking rumors that he’d died, and the hilarious hashtag #BringBackMutharika.

Mutharika is the latest African president to disappear without a word to his people. Communication between leaders and their constituents often grow quieter after elections. Poor public relations are a signal of the lack of accountability and transparency displayed by many African leaders.

Mutharika’s jaunt in New York had nothing on Cameroonian’s president Paul Biya’s spontaneous stays at European hotels. In 2009, his three-week holiday in La Baule, southern France cost $40,000 a day.

“Like any other worker, president Paul Biya has a right to his vacations,” information minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary said at the time. Biya has been in power since 1982.

But this time, one Cameroonian won’t let Biya catch a break while his country suffers. In a video that is going viral on social media, an unidentified man stands outside the Intercontinental in Geneva, condemning Biya and his entourage for living in a hotel for two months while Cameroonian’s struggled to make a living back home.

“I’ve come back again to the Intercontinental to make a fuss, to ask what are you still doing here? What do you do everyday?” the man shouted, continuing to berate Biya until hotel staff shooed him away. He staged the same protest earlier this year and vowed to return until Biya went home.

The physical absence of leaders further exposes poor leadership. In many instances a president’s illness—or death—has given way to a power vacuum. The offices these disappearing presidents occupy (when they’re around) center around personalities and their allies, rather than creating strong institutions that serve the people.

Malawians in particular have every right to be suspicious of a disappearing leader: In 2013 an already dead president Bingu wa Mutharika was still connected to life support and flown to South Africa for medical treatment, according to a report by the Global Post. An inquest into his death showed that his allies tried to keep up the lie to avoid swearing in then deputy president Joyce Banda in order to clear the way the way for his brother, Peter Mutharika (the younger Mutharika eventually had to win an election to gain power).

The coffin of the late Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika is laid to rest at a state funeral in Blantyre, Malawi, Monday April 23, 2012. Mutharika died April 5 after suffering a heart attack. He was 78 years old. (AP Photo/Thoko Chikondi)
Malawian president Bingu wa Mutharika’s aides swore he was healthy. (AP Photo/Thoko Chikondi)

Across the border, death rumors that proved to be true plagued Zambia’s last two presidents. President Michael Sata disappeared from public view in 2014, missing an address to the United Nations and Zambia’s 50th independence celebrations. He joked in parliament, “I am not dead,” when he resurfaced, but died a few months later in October 2014 of an undisclosed illness.

Sata’s predecessor, Levy Mwanawasa, had a stroke at an African Union summit in Ethiopia and was whisked away to France where he was declared dead at age 58 in 2008. Mwanawasa’s office spent some energy during his term dismissing rumors of the late president’s ill health. In Guinea-Bissau, president Malam Bacai Sanha died of an undisclosed illness at age 64 in a Paris hospital in 2012. The president was also in and out of hospital during his term. Rumor had it that he was suffering from diabetes, but his office was never open with the public. Diplomats told the press he’d been in a coma before his death.

It’s an all too familiar story for many Africans: Leaders’ whose aides swear they’re fit as a fiddle, dying in office under a cloud of mixed messages. A politician admitting to ill health the way Hillary Clinton did during her campaign, expressing vulnerability and displaying openness, is almost unheard of on the continent, even for leaders who have been firmly ensconced in office for years.

Africa’s longest serving ruler, Omar Bongo died of cancer in a Spanish hospital in 2009. Just hours before his death was publicly announced, officials angrily denied reports of his death and banned Gabon’s media from discussing the president’s health. Ethiopia’s longtime ruler Meles Zenawi’s illness was described as “minor” just weeks before he died in a Brussels hospital in 2012, aged 57.

Art students take part in a drawing competition near a portrait of former President Umaru Yar'Adua, during an art exhibition by Malami Leadership Foundation showcasing portraits of Nigeria's former presidents and heads of state in Abuja, Nigeria May 27, 2015. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde - RTX1ESVM
Nigerian president Umaru Yar’Adua was rarely seen before his sudden death. (Reuters/Afolabi Sotunde)

In 2010, Nigerian president Umaru Yar’Adua’s death caused a constitutional crisis. The severity of Yar’Adua’s illness was hidden from the public and some politicians, as Yar’Adua failed to formally transfer his powers to his deputy president Goodluck Jonathan before being airlifted to Saudi Arabia. The latest gaffe by current president Muhammadu Buhari shows that the Nigeria still hasn’t learned how to control the message.

Robert Mugabe is the president who always resurrects from death rumors. President Mugabe’s regular trips to Asia for medical treatment often spark rumors that the president has died. The 92-year-old’s trips are often unscheduled, or change abruptly, leaving citizens in the dark. The international and local press and opposition parties monitor every stumble, but his office swears he’s healthy. Exasperated Zimbabweans have taken to tracking Mugabe’s plane for news on the president’s whereabouts. The last time death rumors swirled, Mugabe played along.

FILE -  Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, center, falls after addressing supporters upon his return from an African Union meeting in Ethiopia, Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2015. Mugabe, 90, was elected chairman of the African Union and is set to celebrate his 91st birthday on Feb. 21. (AP Photo)
Watching Mugabe’s every step and stumble. (AP Photo)

“Yes it’s true I was dead and I resurrected as I always do,” he told journalists waiting on tarmac where his plane touched down. When reporters joked with him, asking if they were speaking to a ghost, he said “once I get back to my country I am real.”

African leaders leaving their countries to receive medical treatment shows what little faith they have in their own public healthcare system. Their refusal to be open and honest with the public further shows a disregard for the people who put them in power, and in turn erodes public trust in the leaders themselves. As Africa’s population becomes younger, citizens in the information age are unlikley to accept miscommunication from much older leaders. The age of the impenetrable strongman leader is over, African presidents have to learn to talk to—and account—to their people.

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