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Sunday, 29 June 2014

Reflections on Sata's Health

There has been much debate on President Sata’s health. This is expected and it is clearly not the first time. Zambians in the past, sometimes led by Mr Sata, have debated matters of presidential health more vigorously than we are seeing at present. This is to be welcomed because Zambia should not be a Republic of Fear, where people are afraid to say what they think for fear of being insulted, victimised or imprisoned.

President Sata is obviously unwell and this was helpfully confirmed by Labour Minister Fackson Shamenda in May 2014 when he said clearly that ministers were equally "concerned" for his health. The issue has therefore moved beyond simple consideration of the binary question, is he well or not, but to two critical questions: how seriously ill is Mr Sata; and, does it matter to ordinary Zambians?

These questions are particularly important because Israel's Haaretz and other foreign papers have now definitively reported that President Michael Sata has surfaced in Israel seeking medical treatment. Using Israeli officials who confirmed the developments, they have debunked any statements which have emerged from the Lusaka government regarding the true nature of Sata's visit.

What we now have is a contest of narratives. Independent media sources, including many credible foreign sources, are telling us Mr Sata is unwell and hospitalised in Israel, while Lusaka government sources are putting out a different version of events. Who should we believe? A recent comment by Michael Kaingu would suggest that the last people we should believe are those around Mr Sata:
“Today we are seeing a Sata who is now picketed at state house it is very unfair. In fact I want those people who are still forcing him to be in office to understand that actually we need him. We need him more as a person than as a president…you understand… and I think it is very unfair to continue as a President when he looks so tired, you understand, to continue pushing him in office. We saw him yesterday (Sunday), and I know it is the people who want their jobs who still want him today" (Source: Lusaka Times)
Michael Kaingu is spot on. As economists the basic question we must ask is, are the incentives strong for people around Mr Sata to tell us his true condition or even persuade him to "rest"? The answer is clearly no. No PF official wants to go and face an electoral vote with an uncertain outcome. So no matter how sick the president becomes the sitting president (incapacitated or not) is immune from pressure from his party. Indeed the party may even keep telling him to continue, against doctor's orders. Morally this is about pure human greed. Economists say it is the "incentives" at work.

A president who is immune from being removed because the potential cost is too much for his party or the clique around him is guaranteed to remain in power throughout the term of his office no matter how sick he gets. In fact if it were possible for the government to hide the truth about the president’s health, even in death, they would probably do it because the incentives of doing so are very strong. Of course nowadays, with the digital age you can only hide sickness for so long. As the PF has learned over the last few weeks. In the end something always gives.

We are not suggesting that Sata is on life support and that this news is being hidden. Rather what we are simply saying is that the economic incentives for withholding facts by those around Mr Sata are strong and therefore critical reasoning is important. And given many people in Zambia are too busy being poor and not in position to raise questions, those able to should be raising them on their behalf. It is called patriotism.

The current situation of course is even more complicated because Vice President Scott is not even favoured to exercise presidential powers in Mr Sata’s absence. Which is why Justice Minister Wynter Kabimba is now temporarily fulfilling the limited functions of the president in a quasi acting capacity. As lawyers repeatedly tells us Kabimba is not “Acting President” because he cannot do everything a sitting president can e.g. he cannot fire ministers. He is merely a minister fulfilling some tasks for the president.

But we digress, the point here is that many would be surprised if after being shunned from fulfilling some presidential functions by President Sata, Guy Scott down the line assumed the reins of power. Sadly, a racial perception among Zambians seems to be the only explanation why Dr Scott continues to be shunned in this area. And if truth be told Scott has not helped himself with veiled racial statement from "monkeying" to accusing the Tonga people of being "small".

These issues aside, the unspoken assumption is that Dr Scott will never hold the instruments of power under any situation. That is a huge problem because legally in the event that President Sata was persuaded to hang up his boots or die in office, Guy Scott must assume power as Rupiah Banda did when President Mwanawasa died. Guy Scott could always refuse to take power, in which case there would be more uncertainty as cabinet minsters and the PF MCC lock horns for power.

Again whatever one makes of these issues, this all again points us back to the disincentives for people surround President Sata to encourage him to rest. Unless they are absolutely convinced there's no alternative, the president will be pressure to continue even if he is unwell.

Of course the longer Sata remains president the more prepared PF becomes for any presidential bye-election, should President Sata decide to rest or die in office. The point here is that the incentive for PF is to wait it out and only trigger the presidential bye-election at the time of their choosing - when they feel ready. Whether PF will ever be ready is another question. It has other problems, including deep internal problems and decllining northern support.

So we know the incentives for PF to tell the truth about President Sata’s health are limited. But does it matter? Should we even be discussing this issue? For some it is a cultural taboo to discuss the president’s health and possibility of death because they think the president is their father. For others it amounts to political opportunism. However, if we were to set aside emotions and looked at the issue objectively, we will see that the president's health matters for five reasons:

(1) It is a legal requirement. The constitution makes it clear that the person who holds the office of the president must be able to carry out those duties. So if he is not well or he is in some way incapacitated he can be removed from power. The process is that a medical board is appointed to ascertain the health of the president and based on its recommendation the president is removed. We are not saying that is the situation. We are simply saying the provisions exist because the president's health is of paramount importance. It is not like an ordinary person falling sick.

(2) It is important economically. It goes without saying that the president's health and surrounding political uncertainty has a strong impact on the economy. Whenever some change of power is hinted or that change is prolonged, markets react. When Mwanawasa was unwell and then died, there was a substantial fall in the Kwacha. If the news of the president's health is not handled properly it may even affect investment. This is especially so because there's huge uncertainty over succession plans within PF.

(3) It is a governance issue.  Many Zambians will be familiar with the worrying case  involving former Nigerian President Umaru Musa Yar'Adua. When Yar'Adua became ill in November 2009 it left a huge power vacuum in Nigeria while the president was in a Saudi Arabian clinic where he never returned. Many Nigerians believe a lot of money was stolen during that time as many back room deals were being done to transfer power to Jonathan. The lesson for Zambia is simple : where a cloud of uncertainty and lack of transparency reins corrupt politicians are likely to take advantage. 

(4) It is existentially  important. The security of Zambia as a state depends on those who hold instruments of power. Any hint of a power vacuum can plunge the country into chaos. It is therefore important that Zambians know who holds power when, where and how. At present the country is fractured and there's a lot of confusion on many issues. Let us face it Zambia is not today what it was when Mwanawasa died. It is a different beast in many ways.

(5) It is human. Zambians are naturally caring people. And we saw this during the great outpouring of love and care during the Mwanawasa presidency. It has been noted that one of the reasons Mwanawasa won the 2006 elections was because when he fell ill there was a great outpouring of sympathy. And this continued during his presidency and culminated in incredible national unity at his death and peace transition of power to President Banda. Zambians love their presidents and wish to keep them in their prayers. This is human and must not be ignored.

For these reasons it is the patriotic and economic duty of every Zambian, and the Zambian Economist, to keep ourselves updated on President Sata's condition and to debate it. It is the least we can do! At the same time, we should recognise that the incentives for those closer to Mr Sata to let us know the truth are limited. Therefore, if we are to fulfil our civic duties we may have to be a little pushier in our demanding for answers. And of course let us continue to remember the president in prayers.

Copyright © Zambian Economist 2014


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