While Former President Bill Clinton's hospitalization is currently the focus of much media attention, the health of political leaders has recently been an imperative topic in Nigeria. On Feb 9th, Nigeria's parliament transferred temporary presidential power to VP Goodluck Jonathan, ending almost 2 1/2 months of political uncertainty after President Umaru Yar'Adua refused to cede power during his hospitalization in Saudi Arabia. The image of a nation is inextricably related with the image of its leader, so the situation in Nigeria raises a larger question. When a leader becomes seriously ill, is it best for a government to come clean and share the gravity of the situation, potentially leading to a worried population? Or to remove the President from power and install a leader who is more physically fit? Is it unethical to hide the full extent of the leader's illness, or to even deny that there is any illness at all?
By their very nature, totalitarian regimes seek to limit information considered damaging to the nation, and promote an often quasi-religious cult of personality around their central leaders. It is believed by American sources that Kim Jong-Il, North Korea's leader, is extremely ill. North Korea's government vociferously denies any claims that Kim is sick, and accuses western sources of creating such rumors to undermine the government. Curiously, South Korean government and media officials have also downplayed allegations that Kim Jong-Il is ill, in hopes of maintaining an image of a strong North Korea for their own political purposes.
Totalitarian regimes hardly have a monopoly on lack of disclosure when it comes to the illness of a President. Democracies, including the United States, have downplayed the full extent of a President's illness: FDR's battle with severe polio restricted his ability to walk, although the vast majority of Americans were unaware of his illness. This was partly due to a media that shied away from detailing the disability of a wartime president, an act unthinkable today with an American media fixated on every detail of a president's personal life. The secrecy surrounding FDR's illness was far from unique in American history.
So, how well did Nigeria handle the crisis? On one hand, there was a noticeable lack of information from the government about the state of Yar'Adua's health. There was also a nearly two month period in which the Nigerian political apparatus failed to come to an agreement on how to handle the president's absence. This lack of action led to allegations that politically powerful pro-Yar'Adua factions were stalling to keep him in power.
On a positive note, the fact that the presidential handover was accomplished without a coup d'état is notable for a nation that has seen no less than 8 coups during its 50 years of independence. Unlike Cuba's undemocratic transfer of power from one brother to another, at least Nigeria's transfer was within parliamentary procedure (Max Siollon's blog gives an excellent overview of Nigerian legislative procedure, showing the nation's commitment to its democratic infrastructure and the rule of law. Perhaps most importantly, opposition groups were not prohibited from demanding to know the full extent of their president’s illness, which is a positive sign in any democracy.
Three American hikers who have been detained in Iran since July 31st, including Shane Bauer, Sarah Shourd, and Josh Fattal, apparently unwittingly strayed over the border from Iraqi Kurdistan, according to a fourth member of their party, Shon Meckfessel. Meckfessel, who did not join his friends on the ill-fated hike, wrote in a statement that the four were travelling in Iraqi Kurdistan on vacation, and his friends went off on a recommended hike to popular tourist destination Ahmed Awa, an area known for its lovely waterfall. Apparently unaware that Ahmed Awa was near the Iranian border, the three were detained while hiking in the area by Iranian authorities, and have yet to be released. Meckfessel writes, "I hope that people understand my friends' presence in the area for what it was: a simple and very regrettable mistake."
With the recent release of journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee from North Korean custody, thanks to a deus ex machina intervention from former U.S. President Bill Clinton, the question being asked in the Iran case is where diplomacy goes next. Have Clinton's actions in North Korea piqued the interest of the Ahmadinejad regime, perhaps empowering them to turn these hikers into pawns in a greater diplomatic game with the United States? Iran has detained many Americans over the years, most recently arresting Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh, charged with instigating post-election violence.
The story of one of these hikers, freelance journalist and documentary photographer Shane Bauer, was featured in today's episode of Democracy Now below, which airs on Link TV. Bauer, an Arabic speaker and graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, delivered a report for Democracy Now in February 2009 on U.S. military alliances with Iraq's Sunni militias.
For this week's Global Pulse episode, Mr. Clinton Goes to Pyongyang, host Erin Coker asks the question: Did Kim Jong Il win this one? Share your thoughts and read our blog post, "Bill Clinton's Unique Position as U.S. Humanitarian and Diplomat", below!
Did Kim Jong Il win this one? After being held in North Korea for several months, two American journalists finally returned home, thanks to Bill Clinton's deft negotiations with Kim Jong Il. Ultimately, the release of the two young women served the interests of both of these poweful men on the international political stage.
One question that remains is whether it should have been the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, negotiating the return of U.S. citizens. An article on CNN's website commented that, "Former presidents are used as envoys and undertake humanitarian missions all the time," and, "Hillary herself has said she considered her husband a trusted adviser and could even consider using him where appropriate." In the world of international diplomacy and humanitarianism, acheiving the goal is more important than who achieves it.
Bill Clinton might be the perfect candidate to create an opening on the crucial nuclear issue. As a former president and husband of the current Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, he is in a unique position to be a humanitarian ambassador. He also has charm and recognition that allow him to gain access to the most difficult of places.
The video below, from Al Jazeera English, outlines the U.S. media debate sparked by the visit. Not surprisingly, the Obama administration is calling it a humanitarian mission, while former Bush administration officials say Pyonyang is using the reporters as "pawns" to "enhance [the] regime's legitimacy." You decide: