Is Zambia Facing Its Own Yar’Adua Moment?

Many Nigerians recall the frightening constitutional crisis the country experienced in late 2009, early 2010 when their elderly president, Umaru Yar’Adua, absconded to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, and did not speak publicly to the nation or to the media for no less than three months. The incident resulted in the contentious appointment of Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, but not before Yar’Adua’s coterie of advisers enjoyed months of power under the “invisible presidency,” including a forged signature for the release of supplementary budget.

In Zambia, a sense of déjà-vu has struck some Africa observers, as President Michael Sata has now gone six days without speaking publicly to the nation while allegedly receiving some type of medical treatment in India.

Of course it is far too soon and deeply inappropriate to make uninformed speculation on the state of President Sata’s health, and while both supporters and opposition pray for his safe return, in all likelihood the president will be back in Lusaka within days and the whole incident will be forgotten. Nevertheless, the comparison with Nigeria’s Yar’Adua experience is interesting given the numerous questions raised by this temporary vacuum of power, and the lack of clarity over constitutional process, and the near total absence of information about what the president is doing in India. In a modern democracy, there is no need for this level of secrecy – instead the citizens who have placed their trust in a leader at the ballot box deserve to be informed of any and all pertinent information while trusting the strength of the political system to maintain stability.

President Michael Sata’s trip to India has been a thorny issue since an online publication first broke the story that he had secretly flown out of the country for medical treatment. Traditionally, before the President undertakes a trip—whether official of private—his press office issues a statement explaining his movements. Many Zambian commentators were surprised by the unannounced departure of the president, given that Sata had just returned from Botswana.

Once the story was broke by privately owned website Zambian Watchdog that Sata had secretly flown to India for medical treatment, the government came forward with a series of contradicting statements (not dissimilar from the Nigerian experience). Information Minister Fackson Shamenda confirmed the President was indeed in India but on a on a “private visit,” accompanied by his wife Dr. Maureen Kaseba and spokesperson George Chellah.

There was no mention of President Sata having traveled to seek medical attention. Then Vice President Guy Scott told Parliament that reports of Sata having gone to seek treatment were “nonsense” though he, Scott, saw nothing wrong if the head of state would utilize the same chance of being in India to undergo medical check up. Following Shamenda’s and Scott’s statements was Foreign Affairs minister Given Lubinda who claimed the President Sata was actually on holiday partly to recover from last year’s general elections campaigns as he had never rested from the time he won the presidency after 10 years of being in the opposition. He claimed the trip was known to him (Lubinda) two weeks before it happened. More drama was to follow.

In the midst of all this, the Indian press broke a story about Sata’s arrival that country and that he was to undergo surgery for a urological disorder after being admitted to a medical facility. The reports suggested that Sata had been having blood samples in his urine hence the operation. At this moment, the rumor mills went into over-drive in Zambia with some suggesting he had prostate cancer.

His visit, according to the Indian press was actually a state one and not private and security where he was staying was tight. In the days to follow, the privately owned Post Newspaper, which is overwhelmingly loyal to the Sata government (more than a dozen Post employees now hold government positions), carried a story quoting its editor-in-chief Fred M’membe that the President was after all fine because he, M’membe, had a telephone conversation with him where they talked about a number of things ranging from poverty to development. It was not clear whether M’membe in that telephone discussion asked Sata if indeed he had an operation and how it went. The story in The Post was silent on whether M’membe asked Sata those critical questions. Given the Post’s less-than-independent credentials, some inquisitive minds have argued that The Post story was a just a propaganda stunt meant to downplay the President’s illness in the eyes of Zambians. (In Nigeria, Yar’Adua would also “give private interviews” through third parties that would claim everything was fine in Saudi Arabia.)

Apparently, according to the Indian press reports, the President has now been discharged from hospital and ironically, Chellah has since the time Sata was discharged issued two statements saying the President has during the trip held two meetings with Indian investors who have shown willingness to invest in different sectors of the economy like the hotel industry.

Zambians, who elected Sata and fund his trips and activities through the taxes they pay, have now been left asking questions. They want Sata to lead by doing the opposite of the things he condemned his predecessors for. Many Zambians believe that it’s time for Sata to practice what he preaches, perhaps beginning with his promise to only receive medical treatment in Zambia, bringing more investment to local hospitals.

Why wasn’t the President’s trip announced till an online publication broke the story? If the visit was a private one, why was Sata accorded a state visit by Indian authorities? Have Indian newspapers been making false reports? If Sata was on holiday or on a private visit, why is he conducting official business on behalf of government by engaging with Indian investors? If indeed he’s on a “continued investment crusade” as suggested by his spokesperson, why did he leave out his commerce minister and other government officials on this trip but instead opted to travel only with his wife and spokesperson? And when is he coming back anyway?

Interestingly, when late Zambia President Levy Mwanawasa was sick, Sata, that time in the opposition, repeatedly made commentaries urging the government to issue detailed reports of Mwanawasa’s sickness. He further wrote to the then Minister of Justice George Kunda to constitute a committee to determine Mwanawasa’s fitness to hold office. But instead, his scenario being treated like a state secret with so many contradicting statements coming from government.

To many Zambians, the health of their President is of concern and if the truth can be told, speculation will end forthwith. Everyone should hope and pray for President Sata’s health and his safe return to Zambia, but this “Donchi Kubeba” culture of secrecy does a disservice to the country by producing needless uncertainty and instability. It’s time for democratic leaders to recognize that their voters can handle the truth.

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