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Presidential Illness: How to Respond?

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.

 

 
 

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