Atta Mills and presidential mortality, By Chidi Anselm Odinkalu

I’ve read snippets here and there about the death of Ghana’s President John Atta Mills and several comments about how in his death, Ghana have lessons to teach the rest of Africa, including Nigeria, on the management of presidential infirmity and mortality. I regrettably miss the point. That’s not because I have any sympathy for the egregiousness of the backroom of Nigeria’s late President Umaru Yar’Adua (UMYA) or the indignity to which they reduced a decent man in his dying days with their grasping mendacity.

Let’s dispense with the niceties first. President Mills appeared to be a man of basic decency and modesty. He was a law teacher and he lived – even as President – with the meekness and simplicity that befits a teacher. The meek may not yet inherit the earth but I pray the Almighty shows mercy and kindness on his soul in the hereafter. He appeared to have earned both.

That said, the man reportedly died of metastasized throat cancer. Assuming that is correct, then it seems to me to fit tired and cowardly pattern of presidential parsimony bordering on official mendacity on important issues that could determine the fate of countries. Pompidou and Mitterrand did it in France. Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Regan practised it across the Atlantic – feeding the people lies about the health of the President. 

In Africa, when was the last time a President has “stepped down” because of ill-health?

You’ll have to go back to the coup by the much-hated General Zine Abdine Ben Ali in 1987 in Tunisia when, as Prime Minister, he transferred a clearly senile Habib Bourgiba to a Sanatorium in Monastir after the old man had given the country a disquisition on the state of his testicles as a national broadcast!

Look at most of the recent transitions going back to Houphouet Boigny nearly 20 years ago. Le Vieux in Abidjan was killed by senile dementia and cancer. In the end, he was resident for most of his last five years in a French Sanatorium. Eyadema Senior died of cancer. Anyone who saw him by the end of the last Millennium didn’t require any medical skills to know that Eyadema was quite unwell and hardly fit to hold any office. Bongo senior was killed also by long metastasized cancer. He died a figure of great pity to those who knew him.

In Equatorial Guinea, the death in 2008 of President Lansana Conteh happened at the end of a protracted period of illness in which he was reported to be dying in installments. When he ran for re-election to his final term, he was too ill to campaign and cast his ballot on Election Day inside his car because he was unfit even to come out the car. He was too hobbled by a cocktail of afflictions, including diabetic sores, which had rendered much of his legs useless.

In Central Africa, when Mobutu died in 1997, his palace in his birthplace, Gbadolite, was plundered for – most among other things – diapers. His metastasized prostate has rendered him so incontinent at both ends beneath the waist.

Down south, Zambia’s Levy Mwanawasa died after collapsing at the Sharm El Sheikh African Union Summit from a suspected aneurysm not long after he’d barely survived two milder others at home. About the death of Bingu wa Mutharika in his neighboring country – well, I guess we have to ask Pastor TB Joshua!

It is credibly alleged that President Mills was also an avid follower of Pastor TB Joshua and that his not infrequent sightings in Nigeria were for assignations with this new age Shaman. This is not the place to speculate on whether these allegations are true or false.

Clearly, however, throat cancer doesn’t kill overnight. If it is true that the cause of his death was throat cancer, then it suggests that when President Mills presented himself for adoption in his party’s primaries as a candidate in Ghana’s forthcoming presidential elections, he must have known his health was not good enough for the rigours of a presidential campaign or of governance if he were to win. Was this not a relevant issue for the people of Ghana to know?

I am persuaded that if this was indeed the case, the president and his handlers served his legacy, his party and his people quite poorly on this score. He fell well short of the standards of candour that his deportment suggested and his office required.  

It is well worth asking: What is in the Presidency that Dead-men Walking cling to it with every desperation of their dying moments, especially in Africa? Surely the blessing of knowing that the end is near could be managed better? Clearly, the Life President is still not a dead species in Africa.

It’s tough enough looking around the kitchen with a seasonal flu. Why would anyone want to stick around a job in the performance of which they have manifestly become incapacitated by terminal illness, especially when the job is something as important as the Presidency?

There are different and better ways to do this right. How? Look at the example of Tayo Aderinokun, the former Managing Director of Guarantee Trust Bank (GTB) PLC, who died in Nigeria last year. Tayo was also felled by Cancer. When he knew the end was nigh, he stepped down from running the bank, transitioned it into more healthy hands that had been prepared for that eventuality and took all the time he needed to meet the inevitable with both dignity and contemplation.

Surely, running a country can’t be easier than running a bank, can it?




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