A mystery in Africa
AFRICA’S leaders are not known for their youthful vigour. So it is not surprising that their absence from the public eye, especially in a Western country with an abundant supply of good hospitals, tends to spark lurid rumours of illness and even death. Malawi’s president has certainly been doing his best impression of a missing person: having landed in New York on September 16th, Peter Mutharika has not been heard from since the UN General Assembly, which ended on September 26th.
Malawians have taken to Twitter with the hashtag #BringBackMutharika (a play on #BringBackOurGirls, which was used to rally support for Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram). One tweeted the presidents of America and Rwanda to ask if they had any news of the missing head of state. Speculation swirled that Mr Mutharika, who is in his mid-70s and whose brother died of a heart attack while president in 2012, was undergoing some kind of medical treatment.
Eventually the Malawian government put out an ill-tempered press release on October 9th, harrumphing that Mr Mutharika was in “very good and robust health” and still carrying out his duties while in America. It also reminded Malawians that spreading such “baseless, malicious and sickening” rumours was criminal. Then, at last, on October 11th it put a date on the dear leader’s return: October 16th, a full month after he left Malawi.
Whether Mr Mutharika was in fact ill or merely spending time with his three adult children, who live in America, the government’s refusal to be transparent about the president’s whereabouts displays arrogance, says Boniface Dulani, a political scientist at the University of Malawi. It is not the only country on the continent to do so. Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Algeria’s 79-year-old, wheelchair-bound president has rarely been seen outside since suffering a stroke in 2013. Paul Biya, Cameroon’s 83-year-old leader, spends extended periods in Switzerland. Zimbabweans thought their 92-year-old despot, Robert Mugabe, may have died during an unexplained visit to Dubai; on his return he joked, “It’s true I was dead. I resurrected as I always do.”
Presidential mysteriousness may be a ruse to avoid the criticism heaped on Nigeria’s leader, Muhammad Buhari, when he was treated in Britain for an ear infection, contradicting his pledge to halt health tourism abroad in order to save foreign currency. It is also reflective of much of the leadership on the continent. “The Big Man is not only the sole holder of wisdom in the country, but he’s also supposed to be this infallible character,” says Mr Dulani. “To say that I am ill might actually weaken the image of the Big Man.”
The lack of transparency can have real consequences, too. The severe drought that is devastating southern Africa has left 6.5m Malawians facing hunger, most of whom are being kept alive by increasingly exasperated donors. “They’re facing an absolutely catastrophic humanitarian challenge,” says a Western official. “We need the government to be focused and on their game.” Meanwhile, no one knows whether Mr Mutharika is concentrating on the plight of his people while silently spending their money.