Abimbola Adelakun: Death and the African leader

Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, was buried on Sunday. Expectedly, there was a performance of grief and lots of adulatory expressions at the burial. From Jacob Zuma to Susan Rice, encomiums poured in.

While some of the eulogies were touching, the truth is that he was just another sit-tight autocratic leader who spent 21 years in office before he went the way of all flesh. Bar politics and geopolitical underpinning, I don’t think much would have even been made out of the funeral if he had not been a ‘friend’ of the West.

The drama of Zenawi’s death had several things in common with that of former Nigerian president, Umaru Yar’Adua. Ethiopian state officials downplayed the gravity of Zenawi’s ailment by promising he would return to office “very soon.” As it turned out, he did not.

Zenawi’s death ups the count of African presidents that have died in office this year alone to four; an alarming statistic if viewed against other continents.

First was Guinea Bissau’s strong man, Malam Bacai Sanha, who died in Paris.

Next was Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika who had cardiac arrest. Then came the turn of Ghanaian president, John Atta Mills, who died of throat cancer. And then this August, it was the turn of Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia, who also died after a protracted illness.

And if we consider that since 2008, out of 13 heads of state who have died in office, 10 had come from Africa, it becomes rather worrying.

For these African leaders, age cannot be the sole causative factor, even though the oldest was Mutharika who was 78.

Apart from those who were killed during crises in their country like Libya’s Muammar Ghaddafi and Guinea Bissau’s Joan Bernado Vieira, the rest died of one sickness or the other.

Zambia’s Levy Mwanawasa died of stroke; Guinea’s Lansana Conte died of a sickness he hid for years; Yar’Adua died of kidney failure and several other things; Omar Bongo of Gabon died of advanced cancer, even though his aides lied through their teeth that he was in a Spanish clinic merely to recuperate; and even Ghaddafi died with the self-delusion of being the defender of a United States of Africa.

And given the excellent (and costly) medical opportunities that come with their offices – as most of them travel abroad for the most basic of ailments – it is an irony of sorts when they succumb to ailments.

There’s no sense looking for a certain jinx, an ancestral curse, plaguing them; they died in office, mostly, because they didn’t know when to quit the stage. It is peculiar of African ‘big men’ to see their own invincibility and then become entrapped in the smallness of their minds, thinking the world was built around them.

And for a fact, the peculiarities of our African existence can induce a sense of messianic fervour in these leaders.

They also cannot leave office because an average African leader believes he is the office he occupies and would rather die than seeing himself supplanted by someone else.

It might also have to do with our traditional system of monarchy, which requires one person to die before another person can ascend the throne; maybe they never really recover from that system of government. Or, their DNAs are simply defective.

Another factor usually is that they are in office because it is the turn of their tribe. If they leave office, somebody else would take their turn and it would be a long time before Providence rotates the seat back to their tribe.

There is also the relentless hope against hope that they would pull through, which makes them hold on to office tenaciously even when their bodies and medical experts state otherwise.

In the case of Conte, when a newspaper published a picture of him looking as pale as death, his attack dogs arrested the journalist and made the editor publish a photograph of the president looking healthy (sounds like they didn’t learn much from Sani Abacha) but he still died.

Yar’Adua’s cabal also tried to keep Nigerians fooled for a very long time.

While reading the chronicles of his death in Segun Adeniyi’s book, “Power Politics and Death: A Front Row Account of Nigeria Under the Late President Yar’Adua,” one question that kept plaguing my mind was the issue of his famed honesty versus how he handled his own health.

If Yar’Adua was as honest as he was made out to be, why didn’t he take his sickness-ravaged body home and die with dignity instead of all the drama – to the point his body was ventriloquised – staged for him?

And if a man would not be true to himself over the state of his own health, it follows as night the day that he could not have been true to Nigerians.

African leaders, even when they are in the best of health, are not the most imaginative, effective and progressive of the lot. Yet, when they fall sick, they will rather all of us be their death-horseman than for them to show some sense of honour.

One other thing I have noticed is that these dead African leaders are hardly ever treated in their own country and by their own people. They almost always have to go abroad while swearing they are merely taking a rest (and it feels like déjà vu right now) after a hectic non-schedule. They lie, spin one tale after the other until death, the ultimate leveller of men, strikes and their bodies (or the shell of it) are brought home.

And it is for this last reason that I find it hard to pity them. Why, in the name of all that is good, do they fancy going to be treated abroad, with all the humongous costs, while the health facilities in their country fall to pieces?

I am not superstitious but the fact that in spite of all the money they have access to, all the benefits they amass for their selfish selves, they eventually die, shows that death – the ultimate weapon and enforcer of democracy – is still the greatest weapon nature has gifted Africans against her bullheaded leaders.

And for this reason, I dedicate this piece to Death, the natural – and only – constitution to which African dictators eventually succumb.


* Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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