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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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10 Bright Spots in a Pretty Bad Year

In this week’s special edition of Global Pulse, host Erin Coker reviews 2009 news stories that will matter in 2010. Watch the episode, and share your thoughts, below!


Between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an upsurge in violence in Pakistan, Iran’s political upheaval and the global financial crisis, 2009 has been tumultuous to say the least. Even for someone immersed in global media, it was difficult at times not to hit the cheap (and the not-so-cheap) wine just to get through the daily barrage of bleak news.


Which is why I took it upon myself to drum up 10 of the year’s more positive stories. Some were widely reported, others warranted only a fleeting mention, but all stand out as bright spots on an otherwise challenging year. A good reminder that even in the darkest of times, a silver lining can be found if you look hard enough. I’ll drink to that!

1. A Different Kind of Hotel Rwanda
Following the instability and brutal civil war that plagued the central-African nation in the late-1990s, tourists are returning to the country to marvel at its mountain gorillas and lush landscapes. Tourism revenues rise 11 percent in the first quarter of 2009, compared to the same period last year. Even better, the Cartagena Summit on a Mine-Free World announces that Rwanda is officially “landmine free” – a distinction that is doubtless welcomed by tourists and residents alike.


2. Afghanistan and Pakistan Get More Schools
Non-profit activist Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute (CAI), continue to build schools in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan, even in Taliban areas. Because CAI schools rely heavily on community involvement, militant groups have largely avoided destroying or damaging what are perceived as locally-backed projects.  To date, the CAI has built 130 schools in the two countries. To learn more about CAI or to get involved, visit


3. Aceh Rebuilt
Five years after the Indian Ocean Tsunami devastated communities in Aceh, Indonesia, rebuilding efforts in the hardest-hit province are wrapping up. In November, aid group CRS announces that it has met its reconstruction goals in Aceh.


4. Karadzic Faces the International Criminal Court. Sort of.
Although the alleged Bosnian Serb war criminal boycotts the opening of his trial, claiming that he did not have sufficient time to examine the evidence against him – 10 years on the lam wasn’t enough time? – Radovan Karadzic does appear in court on November 3. The trial is expected to resume in March of next year.


5. Kidnapped Aid Workers Released
After being seized by Somali gunmen in Kenya, three aid workers with Action Against Hunger are released three months later. In a similar bit of good news, assailants also free kidnapped aid workers snatched in Sudan’s Darfur region.


6. U.N. Demands Halt to Rape as War Weapon
Unanimously voted in, resolution 1888 reflects the 15-member body's "demand for the complete cessation by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence with immediate effect." Plans are in the works to create a special U.N. post to front the effort.


7. Detained Journalists Freed in Iran, Iranian Writers Honored
Following domestic and international protests, jailed U.S./Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi is released from a Tehran prison. Saberi had been originally sentenced to eight years in prison for “having collaborated with a hostile state.” Newsweek journalist Maziar Bahari is also released after being held for nearly four months following Iran’s June elections. In November, Human Rights Watch honors four Iranian writers with prestigious Hellman/Hammett awards for their courage in the face of political persecution.


8. Latin America Takes Steps Towards Equality
Mexico City backs a gay marriage bill, making the city the first in Latin America to legalize gay marriage. In another first, Uruguay passes a same-sex adoption bill, granting same-sex couples the right to adopt children.


9. Zimbabwe Slowly (Very Slowly) Improving
Following political instability, runaway inflation and a devastating cholera outbreak, Zimbabwe is making some inroads to recovery. HIV prevalence rates continue to fall and inflation is dropping. After months of fruitless negotiations, Zimbabwe’s rival leaders reach an agreement on commissions for human rights, election and the media, possibly putting an end to ongoing political deadlock.


10. Child Brides Take a Stand
A Saudi court rules in favor of an 8-year-old girl seeking to divorce her 47-year-old husband. Soon after the decision, the Saudi justice minister announces plans to enact a law protecting young girls from marriages. In rural India, young girls follow the lead of Rekha Kalini, who attracted widespread attention after refusing a forced marriage.


For more news highlights from 2009, catch the Global Pulse year-end special Once and Future News 2009-2010.


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