The Cult of Personality Fuels Secrecy of Health of Political Leaders

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When it comes to celebrity worship and deference to the cult of personality, the whole world seems to lock in the adoration of those leaders, whether in social, sports, economic, or political class. Perhaps in politics, the reverence accorded to national political leaders is astounding and worrisome as minions refuse to share information about the health status of their political leaders, encouraging conspiracy theorists to spin the narratives in a direction they prefer.

This discussion chronicles the events that demonstrate national political leaders’ health status, which has been a closely guarded secret. At times, even their deaths have been withheld for days or weeks for reasons which are not clear. This article will investigate the reasons that propel the authorities to parade lies or intentional distortions when the health of leaders is under the spotlight.

The death of Namibian President Hon. Hage Geingob, 82, while receiving medical treatment at a hospital in the capital, Windhoek, had left many tongues wagging. In Namibia, unlike most countries, there was transparency about his illness and death. After Hon. Geingob returned home from the US, where he had received treatment – about two weeks ago, he revealed he was grappling with cancerous cells that had invaded his body. The Namibian government was swift to announce his death no sooner than he had passed away, and within 15 hours, his vice president was sworn in as the president. It was an efficient machine at work in this particular case.

In the US, the health of President Joe Biden has been scrutinized. Still, he has been pushing back suggestions that he is suffering from amnesia, with memory loss evident when his speeches tend to mix unrelated issues and sometimes bypass his lectern until an assistant leads him to where it was.

His regular falling when climbing the steps of his Airforce One jumbo has generated memes online, with some suggesting he is suffering from brain malfunction with White House journalists poking questions at him of whether he was capable of running for a second term given the multitude of his memory blackouts which are increasingly becoming very embarrassing.

Back home, we have a history of suppressing the status of health and deaths of national political leaders. First and foremost, we tend to distrust our medical facilities, which cannot handle their delicate health issues. So, whenever they struggle to recover, we blithely dispatch them to overseas hospitals.

Then-President Benjamin Mkapa issued the most memorable statements concerning the health of the first President, Julius Kambarage Nyerere. President Mkapa said although President Nyerere did not want to go to the UK for further treatment, he had urged him to go because Tanzanians would not have understood him had President Nyerere been treated locally! I find that odd because Mkapa never consulted either of us to opine the way he did. He was merely expressing his personal views, albeit to attach weight to them, which he attributed to all of us!

President Jakaya Kikwete, when confronted with the ethical issues of incurring damning medical costs to treat leaders abroad who were supposed to improve our local health services, he defended himself by saying if they were not treated abroad, they would die! The impression left was, though unintended, that our local health services were endangering our own lives, which was not valid.

When our leaders die, there is usually a commotion to accept their deaths, and misinformation is preferred, while the real story takes days, if not weeks, before it is acknowledged. The end of the Late former President Dr John Pombe Magufuli epitomized our inability to accept that national leaders are just like us, too humanely mortals. There is a tendency to elevate them into immorality, which has become part of our political culture.

Almost all political leaders named to public universities, international airports, bridges, markets, and roads demonstrate a desire to immortalize them even after death. We seem to delude ourselves that future generations would remember them because we had named lands after them. But the truth is future generations value good deeds over empty titular.

Perhaps the then Regional Commissioner of Mbeya region, Hon. Albert Chalamila, who was a force to reckon with in claiming Magufuli was alive and was working in his office, captured the government’s attitude towards his demise when he blurted out after his official death announcement that he did not know presidents too die! As far as Hon. Chalamila was concerned, presidents were immortal and would never face death!

Two or more weeks before his death, the firebrand “Magufuli” was seen inaugurating Ubungo and Tazara flyovers. Then he just spirited away from the glare of public fora. Keen observers noted his absence in Sunday masses for two consecutive weeks, and alarmists were not disappointed in asking about his whereabouts. Nowhere during the last days of the Late President Magufuli did the government hint all was not well, encouraging the grapevine industry to dish out their versions of events.

Read related: John Pombe Magufuli: An Inquisition of His Legacy Over More Than 10 Years in Power.

In Nairobi, a major news daily claimed he was receiving treatment at a high-end Nairobi Hospital., At the same time, other papers suggested he was taken to South Africa or India for further treatment. As the government continued to muzzle the absolute truth, many began to suspect all was not well, and by the time there was the official announcement of his death, many had already known that he was no more!

The immortalization of national leaders can be retraced to the spirit of tradition before and after industrialization. One reason behind treating kings and chiefs as deity was a fear of instability. So, to deter rivals from overturning their chieftains, they worshipped their chiefs and Kings to look like gods that would live eternally, and when they died, it took many days or weeks to accept that they were too humane and capable of dying!

Another reason to delay informing the general public about the death of a national leader could be a fear of a vacuum as the transition was taking shape. Nature abhors a vacuum, so hiding the truth in the closet buys time to fix the delicate matter without fear of illegal intervention.

The post-President Magufuli transition had its share of intrigues, with some top government officials suggesting his successor could be another luminary, not necessarily the vice president as spelt out in the constitution. During his burial, we were accosted with the telltale that the transfer of power was anything but smooth.

During the farewell, President Dr Samia Suluhu Hassan in Dodoma reminded all of us she was the president of the female gender. All that gender assertiveness was unnecessary unless there was a quarrel during the power transfer. Even the top general during the Late President Magufuli’s burial at his final resting place, Chato, shared the military staunch position that they had strictly observed the spirit and the letter of the power handover process promulgated in the constitution inveighing top mandarins who could have been plotting to usurp power through unconstitutional means.

The official visit of the vice president to a far-flung country in South Korea was kept in a closet, providing ample room for conspiracy theories to suggest he was in an Intensive Care Unit (ICU), which was later vehemently denied. The vice president took time to clear the air after his return, but many pundits wondered why he was destined to inaugurate certain events, and he was a no-show up, fomenting guessing of his whereabouts.

Had his official visit been made public with the TBC 1 covering it in the full glare of video content, nobody in their right mind would have dreamt of picking a lie without being rebuked by the official podcasts. Since his official visit was a well-guarded secret, few believed our vice president when he reassured us he was well and sound. Many still believe his reassurance was part and parcel of a significant public cover-up and spinning to hide his medical attention was behind that trip, rightly or otherwise.

So, during the transitional stage, there could be a legitimate reason to defer the announcement of the demise of a sitting president to address any turmoil that may arise as power mongers attempt to upend a constitutional mandate of power transfer.

While there could be legitimate reasons to delay informing the general public of the health status of leaders, that parameter ought to be traded with the right of the general public to get the truth from the horse’s mouth rather than being bombarded with false news by the notorious Netizens that may look believable when first told unnecessary inflicting traumas and untold anxieties.

The author is a Development Administration specialist in Tanzania with over 30 years of practical experience, and has been penning down a number of articles in local printing and digital newspapers for some time now.

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