What passes for the Ghanaian situation is nothing more than a tragic arena, and John Mills became its frontline casualty in July 2012. The political vampires, including those claiming to be his close allies and trusted confidants, turned him into a mere inert resource for their diabolical schemes. They have a reckoning with their conscience; That is, if they really know what that word means. One can only hope that while mouthing sanctimonious platitudes about him, they have now learnt that do-or-die politics does not determine who lives and who dies.

Though the death of ailing President John Evans Atta Mills was anticipated by speculations months before it actually stroke, the shock it sent to those who had waited for it with bated breath and his admirers alike knew no bounds.

This was as a result of reports from his close aides and himself that his condition was getting better by the day after his return from a medical check-up in America in June that year, which, did little in dousing the anxiety throughout the nation. So, he died at a time when very few expected it while many others kept eyes on his possible resumption to full presidential duties.

So much drama took place within the circle of those around the late President until the sad news of his death on July 24, 2012 after he was shortly taken ill and admitted at the 37 military hospital in Accra where he passed on hours later. First, his health status was concealed from Ghanaians despite calls that such attitude was unbecoming of his close aides since having information about his health was never tantamount to peeping into his privacy. He suffered from cancer that badly affected his sight and general health, making it difficult for him to perform his duties effectively but his aides branded it as ‘an allegation’ to the chagrin of well-meaning Ghanaians.

On that fateful Tuesday, despite all machinations of his handlers, Ghana’s President, John Evans Atta Mills, threw in the towel in his long battle for his life at 2.15pm. He had a month earlier returned from America on a medical trip which he chose to describe as “routine”.

However, many believed that he suffered from a more grievous ailment than what his aides told the whole world. His gaunt look and pallid skin lent credence to the belief that the late president suffered from a far more devastating malaise.

That the late President Mills knew the extent of his illness and yet clung tenaciously to power makes the notion that he was a man of great personal integrity pale into insignificance. The presidency of any nation, especially in a budding democracy like Ghana, demands great physical exertion and any man of integrity would simply have refused to serve when he knew that failing health would make him incapable of performing his duties. Even towards the very end, when it was clear that Ghana’s chief executive had been reduced to a sorry vegetative state, Mills still refused to gracefully bow out, and that was the greatest tragedy of the travesty of his presidency.

Declared winner in Ghana’s photo-finish 2008 presidential polls held on December 7, 2008 and sworn in as President on January 7, 2009, the late leader did not waste time in revealing how sick he was. Within a few months in office, he had started showing clear signs of failing health but did his best to hide it from Ghanaians. Together with his aides, Mills skillfully dismissed fears over his health despite his many medical trips abroad, but when his condition got worse in early June, he was rushed back to America for what he chose to describe as a “routine medical check-up”.

The passing away of the leader of a nation should be a time for deep reflection, and in the case of a nation like Ghana with a myriad of problems, this should be a period of deepest soul searching and sober reflections. It is doubtful though, that the cabal of self-serving politicians who continue to hold the nation of 24million people hostage has the capacity for self-examination, much less self- redemption.

The first important lesson is that the illness and death of Atta Mills should teach African countries to start discussing difficult and delicate national issues such as the health of presidents with much more transparency and openness. Throughout the continent, a common attitude towards serving leaders who are unwell is that of denial, intolerance and pretense that all is well, at the expense of such leaders’ lives.

Most African leaders who are sick are usually unprepared to step down on account of ill health. The failure by the Ghanaian government to inform the nation about the true condition of President Mills’s health should be understood in the broader context. All over Africa, the attitude towards the sickness of Heads of State seems to be that of a taboo subject or a top state secret.

In August 2008, Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa died in France, but his illness was earlier denied and even concealed by government officials. In December 2008, Lansana Conté, President of Guinea, died in France after a long illness, which was shrouded in secrecy and kept away from Guineans by government officials for over a month.

In June 2009, Gabonese President Omar Bongo died in Spain following a heart attack and numerous denials from his spokespersons about his ill health. In May 2010, Nigerian President, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died in Saudi Arabia but his illness was concealed in secrecy with his rent-a-quote apologists branding inquisitive citizens as doomsday elements.

In January 2012, Guinea-Bissau’s President, Malam Bacai Sanha died in hospital in France, but no information was released about his health in Guinea-Bissau. Three months later, Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika died in South Africa of a suspected heart attack after his ill-health was denied for a long time by government officials. Nigerian President, Mohamadu Buhari, has spent a greater part of this year in London, receiving medical care at the hands of western specialists. The country is spending a great deal on this coupled with the cost of frequent shuttles by the Vice President and other close aides between London and Nigeria

There is need to change the way we, as Africans, deal with the question of the illness of our leaders and to let courage and essential truths, not fear and blind sympathy, guide us in moments of uncertainty, anxiety or crises. Late Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chavez, was unwell for some time before his death. But he never hid his sickness from the Venezuelan people, informing them about his regular trips to Cuba for medical review till he took his last breadth in March 2012. Like any human being, Presidents are not immortal and have the right to fall sick and seek medical attention. But there is no need to conceal their ailments to the nation. The health of a Head of State or Prime Minister is a matter of national importance and it is cruel punishment to deny citizens the right to know the exact condition of their leaders.

It is high time African leaders became honest in conveying their health condition to the masses when the need arises. While the illness of an ordinary citizen may have no serious bearing on the country’s economic and political facets, the health of a President of any African country puts that country’s stability, economy and progress on a knife-edge.

The presidency is the fulcrum around which national life revolves and very little gets done without its active involvement. Updating the nation honestly on the health of its leader prepares it for any eventualities, as opposed to the anxiety that silence and speculation trigger. Communications specialists and information managers of heads of state should be candid about the health status of their bosses; you don’t need to protect your job by fighting a losing battle with death over critical issue of the health of a President.

Another important lesson that African countries can draw from Ghana is that it may be a good idea to start scrutinizing the health status of would-be national leaders as an important sine quanon for accessing public office. Until the continent was hit by series of deaths of sitting Presidents, the health of presidential candidates in several African countries had never weighed heavily on the electoral scale of considerations of many voters, and indeed on the campaign issues of contestants for presidential office.

Despite Mills’ visible health challenges, the ruling National Democratic Congress (NDC) had elected him to contest another four years and this lends credence to the view that most African countries treat the health of their leaders with kid gloves.

Even before he came to power after two earlier failed attempts – in 2000 and 2004 – it was widely known that Mills was not well. Yet, Ghanaians ignored all that and went ahead to elect him as president in 2009. Since he knew of his poor health, one would have also expected Mills himself to candidly convey to Ghanaians the news about what he was suffering from and the nature and seriousness of his illness. Admitting that he was unwell would have won him the sympathy of the Ghanaian public and rallied the nation behind its leader in prayers and goodwill wishes.

Such a thoughtful act – quite novel in Africa – would have also disarmed political opponents who might have sought to make political fortune out of the President’s debilitating malaise. It would have further ensured that, upon election, the President worked at a rate he could easily manage and reduced the burden of expectations that Ghanaians thrust on him.

It is time we defined and enshrined sound health as an important qualification for public office in our respective African national constitutions, as many of our constitutions are quite tolerant of sick leaders. A leader can be tolerated when he falls sick in office but those that seek to ascend the highest national offices with ill-health should be discouraged. All presidential candidates should be subjected, by law, to thorough medical examinations prior to nominations for elections, and while serving presidents, they should undergo routine public medical check-ups throughout the course of their terms. Africa cannot afford to be losing its first citizens to ill-health, worsened by the pressures of power, which take toll on their sometimes already frail health. No continent in the recent past has experienced the death of incumbent presidents as Africa has had, and it is time we took this issue seriously.

The Ghanaian example also teaches African countries about the need to invest in progressive clauses such as the running mate to smoothly resolve the problem of succession in the event of a vacancy in the office of president. Article 60 (6) of the 1992 Constitution of Ghana states that: “Whenever the President dies, resigns or is removed from office, the Vice-President shall assume office as President for the unexpired term of office of the President with effect from the date of the death, resignation or removal of the President”.

Thanks to this article, John Dramani Mahama, who until Mills’ death was Ghana’s vice-president, was smoothly sworn in as his successor within hours of his predecessor’s death, taking the presidential oath at an emergency parliamentary session. With this, Ghana avoided a costly presidential by-election, saving the nation huge resources in the process, and avoiding the divisive consequences of uncertain succession procedures, usually left at the whims of self-seeking political players elsewhere and their ill-advised military chiefs.

The need to improve our own health facilities and face-lift them to global standards cannot be overemphasized. From the statistics of death of sitting African Presidents above, it is obvious leaders across the continent have developed a penchant for western healthcare, this explains why most health facilities across the continent are in poor shape. Such investments in western medical facilities can be channeled into repositioning our own for the ruling class to feel comfortable to patronize them.

More than 50 years of being independent, should becoming self-reliant in providing first-rate medical care for its citizens including its leaders not be a top priority for all African countries? Many Africans and their leaders are quick to remind the west of their sovereignty when the latter attempts to meddle in their affairs, but is it not a logical absurdity – or even a major security lapse – for the same Africans to hand over the lives of their leaders to alien medics to be treated when they fall sick? A word, the sages say, is enough for the wise. A piece of my mind.

Source: Stephen Gyasi Jnr.

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