On 10 March, the Zambian people woke up to the news that their new president, who only began his presidential term on 25 January, has already been forced to postpone some of his commitments to seek throat surgery in South Africa. This would be worrying news in any country, but it has deep political resonance in Zambia, where two of the last four presidents have died in office. Already, rumours abound that his health problems are greater that the government is willing to let on.
Reports of Lungu’s ill-health are nothing new. During the election campaign it was alleged that he was sick, but he denied the suggestion and even offered to undergo a medical check up. However, this now appears to have been an act of bravado intended to deflect attention away form longstanding throat problems.
On Sunday 8 March, President Lungu collapsed on the podium while presiding over a Women’s Day celebration in Lusaka. He was rushed to a military hospital, but later issued a statement saying that “I am feeling much better and have been told I have high levels of fatigue and should take some rest … There is nothing to worry about.” He later told a press briefing at the hospital that “I am looking forward to going home. Doctors have done their tests and they have found traces of malaria, but they are doing further tests and they will let me know what next after before the end of the day.”
However, further tests showed that the issue was not malaria. Rather, it appears that the president’s condition, which narrows his oesophagus, led to low sugar levels, which in turn led to his collapse. The surgery in South Africa is a high-tech medical procedure to correct this that could not be performed in Zambia. Although it is not yet clear exactly what kind of surgery the president requires, these kinds of procedures are said to be relatively low risk, and President Lungu is therefore expected to return to work in Zambia soon.
One major difference between the recent episode with President Lungu and previous cases of presidential ill-health is that – post election – he has been much more open about his situation. Under Presidents Mwanawasa and Sata, the government sought to cover up and obscure the ill-health of the executive in order to protect its hold on power. By contrast, under Lungu, the government has issued running updates on his condition. In an interview with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, the president said that he felt fine before adding, “But you can’t take these things for granted because what they detect could prove fatal in the near future or far future. So they (the doctors) think it’s better to seize it in time.”
This has been a deliberate strategy of the president to set Zambian minds at ease. As the president has put it, “We are coming from a history of having lost two heads of state in office and I think (Zambians) are anxious to know the state of their president … So I am explaining where we are. If I’m unfit for duty, I will be the first to say ‘sorry I can’t continue.’ I think that’s how it should be.” So far, this strategy seems to be working, although questions will continue to be raised about whether the president will be able to see out his term of office if he does not return to his duties soon.
Post by Dr. Nic Cheeseman