When the people need to know
Conspiracy theorists exist in every society. They are often hated with a passion by those in power because they regard them as rabble-rousers. The masses love them too with a passion for the very reason that their views are representative of the public view. This group, is what the rulers regard as rubble, and in my view and of course the popular view, these are members of the public. In many democracies members of the public often suffer from what I can regard as "information malnutrition". The ruling elite are often armed with a wealth of information as to the daily going ons of government while the public remains to glean from very little of what is leaked from the inner circle of the ruling class. The deliberate action by the ruling elite to deny the public what is rightfully theirs is exactly what breeds conspiracy theorists. In a republic, the public reigns supreme (at least in theory) and they have the right to know every bit about the health status of their leaders.
In the last two weeks, the world focus has been fixed on the health of Nelson Mandela. Of late the reports about his health are indeed worrying. It has progressed from serious but stable to being described as critical. The media, which is the fourth estate, is deliberately kept in the dark and in the last press conference, South Africa President Jacob Zuma evaded all questions that required him to clear the air on Mandela's health. He emphatically expressed that he is not a medical doctor and hence he cannot give clinical details on Mandela's health. This is only helping to fuel public anxiety and frustration. After seeing the Mandela clan members on television visiting the cemetery after a family meeting, one can only speculate that Mandela is late.
Here is one thing that politicians and particularly presidents need to understand; once you are there you become government property. American servicemen in Vietnam where referred as GIs(Government Issues). The presidency comes in with hefty privileges and on the other side of that same coin lie responsibilities of the same magnitude. The public has a right to know about the prevailing health conditions of their president. In the absence of free flowing information the social networks will certainly create something for public consumption. In this article, I sample the deaths of presidents in Africa and abroad and I elected to commence with our own, the death of President Sir Seretse Khama in 1980.
Sir Seretse Khama
He was certainly an icon on the political landscape of Botswana. His death in 1980 was rather not a surprise to the nation because for a while, his health had been failing. In actual fact, right after winning the 1979 elections, Seretse's health dominated the news more than any single item. At the time there was no formal private press.But Radio Mall was there as the capital's social media. There is a theory that President Khama's death was stage managed. The official date of the president's death was different from the actual official date. It is still not clear why government went this route but the theory is that there was a power struggle in the cabinet after his death. This had to be put to rest before the public could be informed. Before the official announcement, Radio Mall had already pronounced the death of the president and this gave fodder to the theory that he had been dead a while before.
Speaking to one of Khama's bodyguards at the time, he brings in a new perspective to this debate on whether there was a conspiracy to delay the announcement of the death of the statesman. He blames the opposition Botswana National Front (BNF) for peddling the rumours as part of their propaganda machinations. He points out that the BNF being a communist inclined party, exploited the situation at hand. He points out that in communist countries, the death of a leader at that level is always "delayed" to give government time to assess the prevailing security situation. He says in the case of Mao's death in 1976, the government had to plug all holes in order to prevent a counter-revolution by the state's opponents. He says in Botswana's case, the announcement was made by Lenyeletse Seretse over Radio Botswana just slightly an hour after the president's passing. This announcement was done almost immediately because there was no threat to the seat of power.
He was unexpectedly killed by one of his soldiers who in turn was gunned down by one of the guards in the presidential palace. This was at a time when there was a power struggle in Kinshasa. Assertion of this power struggle is confirmed by the succession of young Joseph Kabila who came in as a compromise candidate. In Africa, it is not strange to have your son or a first cousin replace you as president but in this scenario young Kabila had not been a president waiting in the wing. At the time. he was one of the youngest generals in the Congolese army. Laurent Kabila's body was transported to Harare even after the certification of his death. The theory here is that the announcement of his death had to be delayed until the political tussle was over. At the time, the Congolese nation was informed that Laurent was in a critical condition. This was meant to mentally prepare the public about the death of their president . And what was the significance of Harare of all places? At the time of his death, Robert Mugabe's troops were still helping to keep the evasive peace in the jungles of the Congo.Zimbabwe was the right place to conceal the death of Kabila until the storm had settled.
Bingu wa Mutharika
Before his untimely death, the seat of government in Lilongwe was already experiencing political tremors. The contention here was about the ascension of his younger brother Peter Mutharika to replace him at the end of his 10-year term. At the time of his death, he was apparently having one-on-one meetings with members of his cabinet. At the time of his heart attack he was in an exclusive meeting with a female MP, Agnes Penemulungu.This factor also raised concern and it became one of the reasons why the public announcement was delayed. This MP is currently helping the commission of enquiry into his death. The major reason for the delay was the power struggle that ensued behind the curtain which ultimately saw Joyce Banda triumph to the envied seat of power. The theory here is that Mutharika's body was transported to Johannesburg after he was certified dead at Kamuzu Central Hospital. This was done for two key reasons. First, to overcome the succession obstacle and also to prepare the nation for the impending bad news. Upon the body's arrival at Lanseria Airport, the ambulance staff refused to take it on board because this was against public health practices. The army was called in to fill the gap and they obliged with a spice of salutes.
There are four things that the commission has clearly probed in its investigation of the matter; 1. Attempts to conceal the death of the late president, 2. Delays in announcing the death, 3. Attempts to stop the swearing in of the vice president, and 4. A request to the army to take over government. At least Malawians are doing something to avoid a repeat of the same drama in future. It will be of much interest to the readers to take a look at this document, and it is clearly stated in it that the conspiracy about the death of the president began in the social media networking sites similar to Radio Mall and Radio Trench. The commission's report actually sums up all the bad reasons why the health or even death of a president would be concealed.
Ethiopia has not been spared this controversy. When Meles Zenawi died, it was a complete shock to the nation as there had never been a hint about his deteriorating health. Government spokesperson Bereket Simon was at pains to explain how the prime minister died abroad on August 20, 2012 in Brussels, Belguim. In fact, Simon gave very little details about Zenawi's illness. Upon his departure, he only appointed someone to act on his behalf without shedding much information on why he was taking the overseas trip. When he was prime minister, he was well known for human rights abuses, repression of press freedom and other related misdemeanors. Apparently, Zenawi had not been seen in public since June of that year and the government saw nothing wrong with its treatment of the public in denying them information. The streets of Addis were abuzz with rumours and conspiracy theories. But being the dictator that he was, citizens did not express themselves publicly for fear of reprisals from government. This was not strange because he was notorious for jailing journalists and all other dissenting voices.
Outside Africa, the conspiracy to stage-manage the death of presidents still exists. I think this is a third world curse. The authorities in Venezuela tightly stage-managed information about the health of President Hugo Chavez. At a point where his health was declining fast, a stage managed media briefing was held. They showed pictures of his daughters by his bedside. Why did the Venezuelans have to go to these lengths to conceal the truth about the health of this public figure? Chavez had just popularly won the elections. He got so sick to the point where he could not even attend his own inauguration. His vice president was a political weakling and the longer he could act in that position of power while his master was still breathing would help him earn important political mileage. The stage management and the subsequent delay paid off. Nicolas Maduro went on to win the presidential by-election with a very slim margin. Behind him was the ghost of Chavez.
In fact Chavez himself had long planned to keep his health condition top secret. The choice of the venue for his treatment was ideal for the conditions he wanted to create. Havana was his choice for medical treatment for a medical condition that could be addressed in Caracas. In Cuba, information flow is tightly controlled and even access to the internet is a limited privilege. According Reuters press reports, only his family and cabinet ministers were allowed into his hospital room. Even his closest friend, Evo Morales of Bolivia did not have access to him while in hospital.In conclusion, one comes to realise that it is the seat of power that sparks the conspiracy theory because these public figures always leave some power vacuum. Feeling it becomes a mammoth task for those who remain in the inner-circle of power. In a situation where the leader does not leave any power vacuum, the public always receives up-to-date information which has not been manufactured in a 'truth' laboratory. A case in point is the power transition in Cuba.
It seems the Castro brothers had long laid the succession plan even before the waning of Fidel's health. When Fidel was in and out of hospital, the Cuban nation was kept informed and the president often appeared frail in tracksuits bearing the colours of their flag. Raul has gone on to implement reforms such as the introduction of the internet and opening up limited air travel between Havana and Florida. For some time, political analysts have always wondered what will happen when Fidel dies. At one point, one Cuban foreign minister remarked that obviously after his death there will be a funeral in Havana. Fidel's health never caused controversy and I for one do not think his passing on will generate any. Here is something common about your president and your village chief; they never consult the local witch doctor or medicine man for fear of being bewitched. They search further afield.