Presidential health problems must be taken seriously as soon as they are uncovered
On 1 September, the president of Guinea-Bissau, Malam Bacai Sanha, was flown to neighbouring Senegal for a ‘medical check-up’, according to the government. He has had numerous hospital trips recently, normally to next-door Dakar. In December 2009, Sanha postponed a visit to Portugal ‘for health reasons’. He was hospitalised in Paris for ten days. When asked about his health, Sanha said: “It’s true that I also suffer from diabetes but that is not as serious as people want to make out.”
Popping in and out of the country over health concerns can make the people worry. Unsurprisingly, as a small West African state, Guinea-Bissau has suffered political turmoil and in March 2009 the then president Joao Bernardo Vieira was assassinated. Mr Sanha has provided some welcome stability to the tiny nation after a peaceful transition followed Vieira’s killing. But the balance could easily swing back a violent way if Sanha can no longer go on or dies.
If you look 1,600 miles to the east, a similar situation arose last year when Nigerian president Umaru Musa Yar’Adua died. He had suffered from a chronic kidney condition for at least 10 years. One health trip to Saudi Arabia, in November 2009, lasted three months. This left a power vacuum and Nigeria began to rock. Replacing him with the vice-president, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian southerner, was far from a simple step: Mr Yar’Adua was a Muslim northerner. The Abuja presidency, on a regional and religious rotation schedule, was on its Muslim spin, though in subsequent elections, Mr Jonathan won a majority fairly.
The most well-known poorly president at the moment is Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has cancer and completed his third round of chemotherapy on 2 September. He has been undergoing treatment in Cuba and the opposition has claimed that this has been putting national security at risk. However, Mr Chavez underwent his latest batch of treatment back home in Caracas. This was surely a move designed to prove his recuperating fitness and to warn both his deputies and the opposition that his full recovery is approaching. Chavez has been defiant so far, saying on Friday that he “feels better than ever”. He has warned his older brother and other ministers off eyeing up his office, saying he will contest and win next year’s elections.
The manoeuvring and electioneering that inevitably occurs as soon as the main man whizzes off to some overseas clinic is destabilising to a country. Fragile situations, such as those in West Africa, can be left on a knife-edge. In Venezuela’s case, there are worries over to what extent Mr Chavez really can run the country from his hospital bed, despite the president’s phone-ins to state TV. As enticing as triumphant returns from the brink of death can be for presidents lured by possible electoral boosts, the best health policy must surely be honesty from the start over the seriousness of the condition and clear planning for elections and successions if things get worse. And, of course, some of that fresh foreign air.