Guinea Bissau’s leader is in a Paris hospital to receive treatment for an illness too serious to tell his people about it himself. In the meantime, in what feels like a repeat of recent history, his officials are frantically denying rumours of his death. We’ve been here before, and on that occasion it didn’t end very well for Nigeria’s former president Umaru Yar Adua – or Nigeria. By SIMON ALLISON.
One of the very first things I learnt as a journalist was that denials, cast in a certain light, could be as damaging as admissions of guilt. “Mayor denies he’s gay” was the example used to illustrate the point. After a headline like that, it hardly matters if the poor mayor is gay or not; his denial implies he is. No smoke without fire, and all that.
The headlines around the health of Guinea Bissau’s President Malam Bacai Sanha fall into a similar category. Since Thursday, Sanha has been in a French hospital after spending more than a week in medical care in Senegal. No one has confirmed what’s ailing him and, in the absence of real information, speculation has dominated the headlines. AFP ran with “Guinea Bissau denies rumours of ill president’s death”, and that’s the line that went around the world. With a headline like that, it’s hard not to question the official Guinea Bissau position which is that the president is recovering well.
Especially when the statements emanating from Sanha’s office sound so eerily familiar. “The presidency denies persistent, contradictory and unfounded rumours circulating in the country and abroad that the president is dead,” one said, adding that Sanha was on the mend after being placed in an artificial coma. The nature and severity of his illness was not specified.
Compare this statement with that issued by a Nigerian spokesman in January last year, refuting stories about the death of then-president Umaru Yar Adua. “The speculations are false. The President is alive and actually getting better. He is very much conscious, can talk and has been talking , including making phone calls to some people back home.” Yar Adua had also sought medical treatment outside of his home country, in Saudi Arabia, and details of his illness and just how bad it was were scarce.
It’s hard to avoid the parallels between Sanha’s circumstances and Yar Adua’s. Therefore, it might be instructive to look at how Yar Adua’s situation eventually panned out. For months Nigeria was in limbo. No adequate provision had been made for who should lead the government in the president’s absence, with vice-president (now president) Goodluck Jonathan having to fight for his right to take charge, amid rumours that it was Yar Adua’s wife or Yar Adua’s top officials who were running the show and had been all along. Finally, Yar Adua was flown back to Nigeria, catching everyone by surprise, but still made no public appearances to confirm that he was not in fact already dead. Even Jonathan said he was denied access to the president. A few days later he died, officially at least; it remains unclear exactly how long Yar Adua had been dead before the announcement.
Nigeria is still suffering from the is he/isn’t he debate over Yar Adua’s death. His untimely demise upset the delicate geographic balance of Nigeria’s ruling party, and his failure to announce a successor created plenty of dissent within the party, some of which led directly to the unprecedented levels of violence Nigeria is experiencing in its northern regions this year.
It’s still unclear what the consequences for Guinea Bissau would be if Sanha were indeed dead. His government is ineffectual, with the country often described as a narco-state – it is the main corridor for South American cocaine going to Europe, its policy dictated by foreign drug lords. So perhaps Sanha’s physical presence isn’t much needed anyway, at least as far as Guinea Bissau’s real power barons are concerned. And South American drug lords don’t have a reputation for caring about the sanctity of each human life, so they probably won’t be too fussed by his passing. But whether he’s dead or alive does matter to Guinea Bissau’s politicians and generals, who aren’t above fighting for the scraps of power as Sanha himself well knows – he was brought to power in a coup, and only somewhat legitimised by the flawed elections that followed. If he is dead, there would be plenty of incentive for someone to resort to violence to take his place.
Better communication over what he’s suffering from, what the prognosis is and perhaps some comment from the President himself would go a long way to resolving all these tensions. But, like Yar Adua, Sanha is keeping very quiet indeed. Let’s hope, for his sake, that he hasn’t already followed Yar Adua into that great big presidential palace in the sky. DM
- Guinea Bissau denies rumours of ill president’s death on AFP;
- How Equatorial Guinea became the world’s first narco state in the Guardian.