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Monday, 14 July 2008

Levy's illness, incomplete information and the questions on transition...

Neo Simutanyi asks some very important questions on LPM's illness and Zambia's current power vacuum. It is good to read a Zambian analyst who is not afraid to ask the painful questions that ordinary citizens are asking, but which politicians will always be afraid to ask because the political costs are high:

Levy's illness and question of transition, Neo Simutanyi , The Post, Commentary :

On Thursday July 3, 2008 the country woke up to a rumour that President Levy Mwanawasa had died. When international news channels confirmed the rumour around mid-morning, the country was plunged in political and economic turmoil.

However, the swift denial of the story by the government authorities has not helped remove the uncertainty which has visited our country since then. Indeed, there is uncertainty as to whether the government reports on the condition of President Mwanawasa are credible; there is uncertainty as to what happens if he will not be able to return to his duties and there is uncertainty regarding transition arrangements.

The whole nation is aware that President Mwanawasa suffered a stroke at the African Union (AU) Summit in Sharm-el-Sheik, Egypt on Sunday June 29, 2008. He was admitted to Sharm-el-Sheik International Hospital and underwent a surgical operation. On July 2, 2008 he was flown to Paris for specialist treatment.

The government has not explained in what condition he was, when he was airlifted to Paris, whether he was very serious, critical or in a coma. Regular updates on the President’s condition have been carefully worded to read “he is making steady, but slow progress and is in stable condition.” It is difficult to understand what is meant by ‘stable’ condition in an Intensive Care Unit of Percy Military Hospital. It is difficult to imagine that our President is still receiving treatment for high blood pressure.

Last week, the nation was informed the President underwent a successful minor operation to improve his breathing. But at no time were we informed that President Mwanawasa was experiencing breathing difficulties or was on a life-support machine. When some prominent Zambians requested to go and visit President Mwanawasa in hospital, they were told not to do so.

Is there something the government is hiding about the condition of our President? As far as I know, no journalist has been allowed to visit President Mwanawasa since he was hospitalised in Paris. Somehow, many Zambians now doubt the credibility of the official updates on the President’s condition posted on the State House website and search for alternative sources of information. They have every right to know the health and condition of their President.

The health and condition of President Mwanawasa is a matter of national importance. The President is a national institution and in our political set-up is a key driver of change. Little gets done without the President’s involvement. I join the rest of the country in praying for and wishing our President a speedy recovery.

The outpouring of sympathy to the first lady Maureen Mwanawasa and national prayers for President Mwanawasa’s recovery demonstrate the nation’s acknowledgement of Mwanawasa’s leadership. However, while we wish the President a speedy recovery we should prepare ourselves for the worst. What happens, if President Mwanawasa will be unable to return to his duties? There is no need for the leadership to shirk the issue and hope that it will sort itself in the near future.

Since I returned from Zimbabwe recently, I have been persistently asked the question: “what happens if the President is unable to return to his duties?” Others have even asked me, “what does the constitution say about transition arrangements?” These questions signify anxiety and uncertainty about the future.

To be sure, Zambia is a constitutional democracy and elaborate procedures are provided in article 36 and 38 of the Constitution, regarding what happens if the President is unable to discharge the functions of his office due to incapacity or for reasons of death. Barring the worst from happening, the country needs effective leadership at the top. In my view, the Vice-President and his colleagues in Cabinet should provide leadership by invoking provisions of article 36 of the Constitution, which is to establish whether or not President Mwanawasa is in a position to continue to discharge the function of his office.

Others may find this to be uncharitable or even taboo. How on earth should people talk of removing President Mwanawasa from his position when he is critically ill? This is not about Levy Mwanawasa but the office of President of the Republic of Zambia.

People should not personalise the position. It is a constitutional office and we the citizens have a right to comment on what should happen, should the incumbent be incapacitated due to ill-health. We cannot allow speculation and rumour to continue playing havoc on the national psyche and financial markets. Neither is it right to let misinformation fuel political in-fighting within the ruling circles as a consequence of the continued illness of President Mwanawasa.

Transitional arrangements as to what happens should Mwanawasa not be able to continue with his duties appear to be highly contested. There are those who do not even want the transition to be discussed just now. How do you prepare the nation for change of leadership other than to discuss it?

While we all would want Mwanawasa to get well and complete his term of office, he is only mortal and that expectation may not be realised. Others may have wanted him to be around to anoint a successor so that the question of who succeeds him in 2011 is decided once and for all. What happens if he will not be able to do so?

For the first time in our history, as a country, we are confronted with the dilemma of presidential succession, where the incumbent may be unable to continue due to incapacity. It is important to approach this issue with utmost sensitivity and seriousness. Those who may have banked their political ambitions to ascend to the presidency by simply being anointed by Levy should realise that the nation will need to move on. It is neither preposterous nor taboo to begin to talk about transition arrangements right now.

The nation needs to know that the Constitution is unambiguous on the fact that the Vice-President shall act as President in an event of a vacancy in the office of President for a period of three months, followed by an election. There should be no talk of Vice-President Rupiah Banda being disqualified for this or other reason to assume that role, should it come to that.

In the last week, there has also been in-fighting within the ruling MMD due to a suggestion by party spokesperson Benny Tetamashimba that the question of a successor should be discussed when President Mwanawasa returns back home. Many of his party colleagues found his sentiments inappropriate and ill-timed given the fact that Mwanawasa still lies in a critical but ‘stable’ condition at a Paris hospital. But that is not to say that he was off the mark. The point is the MMD has no succession plan and the unexpected illness of President Mwanawasa has left the party without a leader and a possible presidential candidate should there be need to hold presidential elections. I know for sure that there are not less than 24 aspiring MMD presidential aspirants whose aspirations will be thrown into disarray should Mwanawasa not return to his position and should there be early elections.

The nation looks to the current leadership to assure them that they will be able to manage the transition. The people need assurance that there will be political and economic stability during the transition, should it come to that. There is need to know that policies that are in place will not undergo fundamental change.

But that may not be sufficient to calm the markets. There is still a lingering uncertainty as to whether, should there be a presidential election the MMD will be able to win it. My advice to those in the MMD who are demonising Tetamashimba is this: put your house in order and think of the big picture.

MMD’s hold on power may soon come under threat and it is important that the MMD leadership address themselves to this important challenge than dwell on trivialities. But while we all hope it will not come to that, there is need to expect the worst.
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This is a great article, but I think it would have been even greater if Neo had acknowledged that they simply won't do so. As I argued in a previous blog, the incentives for the Cabinet to act are weak. We know that the Cabinet has the power to determine whether the President is incapacitated or not. The point is that they have no strong incentives for doing so. Unless the MMD ruptures from within, Zambia may remain in this limbo for a while.

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