No, the story is not that Zambia now has a “white” acting president Guy Scott, or who takes over from Michael Sata after the January 2015 presidential bye-election. The real and tragic story is why do Zambian presidents give up to the ghost abroad?
Since he assumed power in 2011 Sata’s health degenerated. His illness dates back to 2008 when he collapsed and had to be evacuated to South Africa‘s Milpark Hospital.
Concern about his health have been met with vehement denials, laced with threats of treason against anyone who publicly discussed the president’s health. Alarming was the manner in which Sata was being carted around to; South Africa, India, United Kingdom and Israel in a secretive and hushed manner disguised as official trips, when he was so evidently unwell.
Scott told parliament that Sata was ‘entirely normal’ even when Sata, looking and sounding frail, floundered his way into parliament and failed to complete his speech. Zambians were shocked to learn the next day that he had been flown to attend the General Assembly of the United Nations in New York!
Even when Sata had all but disappeared from the public eye and apprehensions about his health mounted, Minister of Foreign Affairs Harry Kalaba and other government officials peppered the government controlled media with statements saying “the Opposition leaders questioning the health of President Sata were malicious”. “Sata will outlive his enemies that wish him dead”, President Sata is enjoying the best of his health”.
Only after speculation mounted about his whereabouts did the presidency issue a terse statement ,admitting for the first time, that Sata had travelled Britain for medical treatment. Sata died on 28 October in London.
Before Sata’s death, Civil rights Activist Brebner Changala and opposition UPND (United Party for National Development) have been chastised by the PF government for daring to petition the Zambian high court to institute a medical board to assess the health of the president. A provision that is established in -Article 36 of the Constitution of Zambia, Cap 1.
Sata was evidently aware about the public’s concern over his ill-health. In parliament, he feebly stated that “I am not dead yet…thanks to this woman besides me”. This was in reference to his wife who is a medical doctor. The courts too, failed to directly deal with Sata’s health issues, perhaps fearing a backlash from the volatile PF cadres who have responded to any talk about their president’s health with threats of violence.
The irony is that, while in the opposition, Sata demanded that a medical board should be constituted for fourth president Levy Mwanawasa whom he frequently called a ‘’cabbage.’’ Mwanawasa suffered from a speech impediment after a 1992 car crash.
Like Sata, Mwanawasa suffered poor health and was also secretly and periodically flown out to South Africa and the UK for treatment. Sata said at the time, that the nation’’ was entitled to daily medical bulletins on the state of its President’’, because the well-being of the President was a national issue.
In other instances Sata said the lack of information on Mwanawasa’s sickness affected the entire country.” In Sata’s mother-tongue Bemba language, he used to say, ubulwele bwa mfumu li tensha chalo (when a chief is sick it affects the whole nation). So they can’t keep our President’s sickness as a secret.’’
However, when Sata fell ill, such talk was labeled treasonous by his government.
After Mwanawasa suffered a stroke and was hospitalized in France, Sata then questioned the official claims about the former president’s health. He called for a team of doctors to be sent by the Cabinet to examine Mwanawasa and disclose the late president’s actual condition. This time around, such calls could have landed someone in jail.
Zambia now has the dubious distinction of having two sitting presidents decline in silence and finally die abroad. This fact is not lost on the opposition who now must deal with the unexpected shot at the presidency. Already there are calls for medical reports as a pre requisite for presidential candidates, but that is not the point.
It is an indictment on Zambian leaders who refuse or neglect to provide good health care for their citizens, while they speedily travel abroad to seek appropriate treatment, leaving their electorate to suffer the poor health care provided in Zambia while their political leaders fly around to the corners of the earth seeking for better medical facilities for themselves and their families. Only a few months ago, Sata’s son was flown to South Africa after a road accident leaving behind other motorists injured in the same vehicle pile-up..
The Zambian Ministry of Health has a committee that decides which patient can be sponsored by government for treatment abroad, usually South Africa but lately India has been seen as a cheaper destination. But there is a long waiting list of desperate Zambians and the committee does not always follow the recommendations of the doctors. Instead it uses other considerations like political connections, to choose who gets sent abroad.
The ministry of Health refuses to disclose the names of beneficiaries of outside treatment citing confidentiality and in the same vein refuses to tell the Zambian people just how much the tax payer is forking out for medical treatment abroad. The figure spent on Sata’s medical trips abroad, will therefore never be known
Meanwhile, Zambia has a crumbling health infrastructure. Out of about 2,000 health posts, there are only three tertiary health institutions that should ordinarily provide high level medical care, but these face constant shortages of staff, essential drugs, water, oxygen, long waiting lists for basic surgical procedures and overcrowding in the wards. In some instances, patients with serious health problems have to wait for between six to eight months to see specialist doctors. In spite of repeated campaign promises by successive presidents to improve the health sector, the situation has continued to deteriorate and is buffered largely, by the support of cooperating partners and charities.
Of course Zambia is not the only country to have woken up to learn that their president has secretly died in a foreign hospital. There is Ethiopian leader and Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. Initially, there was little reported about his illness, but later it was revealed that he died in a hospital in Brussels, Belgium at age 57, while undergoing treatment.
In January this year, President Malam Bacai Sqnhq of Guinea Bissau died in a Paris hospital. He had been flown to France, after taking ill with suspected diabetes in November of 2011.
Then there was the fiasco after death of Nigeria’s Umaru Musa Yar’Adua in 2010. After many absences for treatment abroad, he was finally flown to Saudi Arabia on the 23rd of November, 2009, having been diagnosed with “Acute Pericarditis”, (an inflammatory condition of the coverings of the heart). His return to Nigeria was shrouded in secrecy until his death.
In all these instances, the scenarios are eerie; the same. African countries with poor health infrastructures shroud their leaders’ illness with, secrecy. These leaders, even on their sick beds, refuse to relinquish power and choose the best medical treatment that money can buy for themselves leaving their country folk to the vagaries of nature and a poor health system.
As Zambians head towards polls which constitutionally must be held before the end of January 2015, these are things that will be going round their heads.. The government’s lies and obfuscation on Sata’s health, the fact that millions of dollars of their taxed money were spent on failed but none the less secretive health missions to destinations they themselves are not able to access, or even visualize, will be high on the political agenda in the coming few weeks..
Scott lied to parliament and the people of Zambia about Sata’s true health status until the end. His and the Zambian government’s credibility were seriously undermined. To some extent, some analysts believe that Zambia’s security interests were seriously compromised and endangered during Sata’s secret illness while the joint military command took some decisions without presidential endorsement. Should a united opposition fail to trounce the ruling PF in the forthcoming elections, it will be nobody’s fault but their own. This election belongs to the opposition to win, or to lose.