Page last updated at 16:33 GMT, Thursday, 18 June 2009 17:33 UK

African view: Big men do not die

The coffin of Gabonese President Omar Bongo is carried by pallbearers

In our series of weekly viewpoints from African journalists, Elizabeth Ohene, a former presidential spokesperson in Ghana, considers the delicate issue of announcing a leader's death as Gabon's long-time leader Omar Bongo is buried.

I speak with authority when I say African leaders don't ever get tired, or go on vacation, or need to see a doctor, or indeed ever die.

And I speak not only of our political leaders but of our traditional leaders as well.

Over the past week as the world has watched the government of Gabon struggle to deal with the news of the death of President Omar Bongo, I have been left wondering whether to laugh or to cry.

The presidency of the Gabonese Republic would like to stress that His Excellency Omar Bongo is not dead... He is continuing his holiday in Spain
Gabon government spokesman

At the age of 73 and having been president for 42 years during which time it was never acknowledged that he ever took a day off work for ill health, it is not surprising that there was no easy way of announcing that the indestructible great man had died.

The sequence of events was a classical farce. On the 7 May, the Gabonese government announced that President Bongo had temporarily suspended his official duties and taken time off to mourn the death of his wife and rest in Spain.

Curiouser and curiouser

Once upon a time, that would have been that, but modern communications make news management a touch more difficult.

Gabon Prime Minister Jean Eyeghe Ndong
Gabon's prime minister telling the media that Mr Bongo was not dead

The international media promptly announced that President Bongo was seriously ill and undergoing treatment for cancer in hospital in Barcelona.

The Gabonese government yielded ground a bit and said that the president was in Spain for a few days of rest following the "intense emotional shock" of his wife's death, and was "undergoing a medical check up".

The international media then reported the president was being treated for intestinal cancer, which they said had reached "an advanced stage".

On 7 June, the French media reported that President Bongo had died in Spain. The government of Gabon denied the report.

An hour or so after the denial, the Gabonese prime minister released a curious statement: "This morning I visited the president, accompanied by the president of the national assembly, the foreign minister, the head of the president's cabinet and senior members of the presidential family and after a meeting with the medical team we can confirm that the president is alive."

When a chief dies in Ghana, you are only allowed to say he has gone to his village

The next day, the 8 June 2009, things got curiouser and curiouser.

The Spanish foreign affairs ministry said: "We have confirmed that President Bongo is alive." This was followed soon after by the Spanish media reporting that Bongo had died.

Meanwhile in Gabon the government maintained its position. A spokesman stated: "The presidency of the Gabonese Republic would like to stress that His Excellency Omar Bongo is not dead... He is continuing his holiday in Spain."

Indeed, according to the spokesman, the latest update he had was good news - and that Bongo was preparing to leave the clinic. "We are getting ready to welcome the head of state," the spokesman said.

Soon after this "good news", the prime minister confirmed the president's death in a written statement.


It was always thus you know; some 30 years ago, a newspaper got into trouble here in Ghana when it carried a report that the president had been flown to London for a medical condition.

John Atta Mills
Ghana's John Atta Mills seems in rude health

I got into a lot of trouble when I wrote an article in which I suggested the nation should be told if the president of the republic was unwell and there was a likelihood of him dying.

After that article, I was told that it was disrespectful to suggest that the chief was unwell, and that even in the very unlikely event of the chief actually dying, one is not allowed in our tradition to say that the chief had died! When a chief dies in Ghana, you are only allowed to say he has gone to his village.

Fast forward to the year 2001 and yours truly is in government in Ghana and is the presidential spokesperson. I put out a statement that the president of the republic was taking a two day's rest.

Next thing I knew, all hell had broken loose around me. Presidents don't take rest and even if they do, I was advised to find a form of words that would not expose him to the public as needing to take any rest.

Now if one is to believe the newspapers here in Ghana, the current president of the republic, John Atta-Mills is unwell; during the recent election campaign, the word on the ground was that he was so unwell he wouldn't make it to the end of the year.

So we are all now carefully watching for any sign of ill health whenever the president appears in public.

His speeches seem to be printed in 22 font size. But apart from that so far he looks in very rude health and every time you see him on television he seems to be angry with somebody or the other.

But if he is indeed unwell, I can assure you there will not be any official communication of the fact.

The reason is quite clear, our leaders are never ill, never get tired and they certainly do not die.

And in the very unlikely event that the President of the Republic, the Head of State, His Excellency President Omar Bongo, might actually be dead and buried, it is disrespectful to say so.

A selection of your comments:

Ms Ohene failed to mention that they also infallible, messianic, irreplaceable and the repository of all wisdom in the land. Now, that is why they cannot die!!
Kwame Mensa-Bonsu, London, UK

Well, this is all part of our African traditions. In my tribe, it is believed that a chief or a grownup (for that matter) never falls down. And even when that happens, one has to find another way to describe it but cannot say that the chief or the elder fell out of respect. My opinion is that although I am proud of and respect our cultures/customs, they should followed on a case by case basis. For example, in the case of the health of the President, in my opinion it should be made public as when someone becomes president, he/she belongs to the state/country he/she represents. Yes, he/she has a private life but because his/her health condition may affect the country as a whole in the future, it becomes a matter of the State/country. That is why it should be made public.

In Africa, however, it is a kept a secret because of the fear of the uncertainty it may bring. This is true especially in countries with either no democracy or a make-believe or quasi one. It is all about SUCCESSION and fear that if the big boss is sick, he is weak and less of a boss. Thus, it is easy to topple him.
Matondo, Los Angeles

Thanks you Elizabeth for the nice write up, I think you are very talented, and while in Africa I used to listen to you wonderful voice and contributions on "Focus on Africa'. However, I beg to differ with you on the topic at hand. Our people have a way of announcing the passing away of a chief or the like. People don't just open their mouths, above all, after 42 years of ruling Gabon, much is at stake. Oral tradition is still alive in some parts of the mother continent, and anouncing the death of an elder belongs to the realm of tradition. I lost my dad two years ago, and when I called my elder brother who is a USA trained metallurgy engineer, he respectfully announced to me that "Dad has just left on a long journey..."May God bless his soul.
Ngonadi ochu, Siver Spring MD, USA

I read Ms. Ohene's article with great amusement. I think the problem is that some African governments lack legitimacy as they came by the gun. As a result, they live in perpetual fear of potential takeovers if they ever publicly announce that the president/head of state is ill and may be dying. Hence all the secrecy...
Nana Koram, Ghanaian in the diaspora

I experienced similar situation in 1993 while I was in the Ivory Coast. There had been wide spread rumour that the president at that time- Felix H Boigny - had died in Europe after battling prostate cancer. The rumour gained some weight when it was announced on national TV one bright summer afternoon that the 'president had arrived in Yamoussoukro" but he was never shown on TV. The announcement shocked people in Adjame (where I having my lunch that day) to the point that shopkeepers closed their stores and people started running here and there. Nobody ever heard or see the president speak on the state radio or TV for the next three months. December 7th, 1993, we officially heard about his death.

Traditionally the death of traditional leader is always kept secret until a certain time before it will be announced. For political leaders (president/head of state) there is always fear of power struggle that is why it is made secret, though. For instance, when Abacha (in Nigeria) died on one dare not talk about it until when he was buried. This apparently is a fear of political tricks. But death is death so when it comes no need to keep it secret.
Ken Jabbie, Freetown, Siera Leone

I read Ms Ohene's article with interest. I feel she got it wrong by generalising her view about announcing the death of a leader in Africa. She may be right about this for Ghana where she comes from or else where like in the case of Gabon but here in Gambia it is different. Leaders are human being and so are expected to die at some point. In many cases what happens here is that when a prominent leader dies here, he is buried before his death is announced because that is just to avoid people scrambling to touch the dead body of this person. That has its own reason but here we usually do not keep dead bodies for long before they are buried. The position of president is very sensitive and so it would be better to keep illness of president a secret for a while. Thanks
Dudu Lamin Barro, Brikama, Gambia

Nice write up. If I got Ms Ohene right, she was trying to legitimize the right of citizens to know the health status of the nations commander in chief and also for the commander in chief to have days of work or vacation as all employers and employees do. As for African traditional chiefs they have no place in modern societies. Chieftaincy institution has outlived its use in contemporary times. They do nothing but sell lands and duplicate functions being performed by other agents of government.
Alfred, Accra, Ghana

Loved the article. Of course the health of a Head of State should be treated with seriousness. Here in Malawi, some online publication published a story that President Mutharika was in a comma a month or so before the May elections. The next thing we saw he was on the radio and TV talking about his campaign launch etc. He never talked about the story. But the online paper was forced to retract the story and apologised. Though they claimed their source was from state house!
Peekay, Lilongwe

Nigeria's Umaru Yar'adua is a perfect example of information control. His excellency has taken several 'Hajj' trips or 'personal leave' in Saudi Arabia and Germany, each time keeping Nigeria in stand-still.We would love to have a complete medical report made public Mr President.
Josiah Zubairu, Nigeria/USA

Not all Africa though. When our first president died in 1981 the nation was well aware of how he was or was not doing, and even the moment he passed away the nation was duly informed. I guess its for issue of continuity and good governance: there are decisions that have to be made daily in the high office that a power vacuum will not help.
Idah, Gaborone, Botswana

I have always loved Elizabeth's sweet voice whilst with the BBC. However, is it not high time that Africa joined the rest of the world in transparency and accountability? The idea of not reporting the illness or death of an African Leader is, in my opinion, very disrespectful to the people. We should remember that African leaders are accountable to the people because they put them into power, unless, of course, those who used the barrel of the gun to assume power. Here in the UK when Tony Blair was in power, it was reported in the press and announced in Parliament whenever he was not well. Both the leader of the opposition and other MPs would wish him well and a speedy recovery.

The only reason i would think about not reporting the illness or death of an African Leader is to allow those around him the time to embezzle state funds before someone else takes office.
Lawrence Larry Bangura, Chester, United Kingdom

You are all very right, but I do not think announcing the death is the problem. The main problem is the fear of the reaction of the public and political implications including chaos, coups, fighting, looting, disarray and all the mess that comes with it. We all know it! So they keep it hopeful as long as they can while taking measures to stop the above happening.
Pina JJ, UK

I think it's part of the African culture to accord our leaders some respect. But with the advent of modern communication systems, should we continue to call a spade a big spoon? I'd say let's see how we can preserve our rich culture with modern communication.
Abednego Otchere, Kumasi, Ghana

It's all to do with our grotesquely deferential attitudes, which unsurprisingly have encouraged generations of rulers to consider themselves quite literally divine. I'll never forget the expression on the face of a former Nigerian health minister when questioned by a British journalist about the deaths of babies in a hospital due to fake equipment. It was one of those expressions that only a true Nigerian would understand: how dare you even think of asking ME questions about dead children? Even this foreign interviewer quickly got the message and promptly moved on to something else. And this was only the health minister. The result is that our continent has become plagued with the highest concentration of kleptocratic tyrants ("elected" or not) anywhere on earth. For my part, I couldn't care less whether Mr Bongo (or any of our rulers) chooses to die or to live forever. I remember my fellow Nigerians celebrating the death of Abacha in the 1990s, in the idiotic belief that things could only get better. Well, so many years later under a supposed democratic regime, we still don't have electricity, hospitals or roads - in spite of billions in oil revenue. But at least our divine one, Mr Yar'adua, can afford countless trips aboard for medical check-ups, while our children die at home of simple preventable diseases.
AKPAN, Canterbury, UK/Nigeria

Culture/custom I think shouldn't prevent our leaders from being honest to us. This other customs/culture are relevance should be reviewed in the 21st century. This might explain why some of the ills like corruption in the Continent continue to be a puzzle to solve. Culture should not hold hostage.
Desmond Yengi, Adjumani, Uganda

I have never once read an obituary of an African leader who passed away in his own country. They all die abroad in a land they have no knowledge of. Why can't they die at home with dignity? They sick treatment abroad always. Shameful that they can't learn from what they see abroad and copy so next time they don't have to travel for treatment. Bongo's wife died in Moroco, bongo himself died in Spain. The president illness must be known, is part of life, they are humans and humans get sick. . Their health is the country's affair and must be detailed.
Dr Ati

I want to disagree with this write-up. African leaders do die but they want all protocols to be observed before their death is announced and not just anybody proclaiming the news as if they are ordinary men.
Victus Kofi Awudi, Accra Ghana

Euphemism and respect are part of every language and culture. If an English news report announced that someone had "passed on", "been taken from us" or "gone to her rest", we wouldn't consider that as dishonesty, since we all know exactly what it means. But when the idiom or convention is translated too literally into other languages, it loses its real meaning; and that seems to be at least part of the problem here.
Peter, Pittsburgh, USA

The official date for the death of Menelik II, of Ethiopia, is July 12, 1913. However, rumour has it that he died in 1912 and that the country was led by a handful of his trusted ministers for one full year [other rumours say it was much longer]. The main reason was to keep the stability of the country until the heir apparent was solidly placed in power and that the power brokers are in full agreement as to who should be responsible for what. I think this is an excellent example of the political skill of his ministers who made sure that the transition period was not chaotic and that the country did not descend into civil war.
Yonas, Canada

For Africans elders command great respect and dignity and somehow society was made to believe that on the other hand sickness and death make a person vulnerable. Since elders are regarded in high esteem status its difficult to announce an elder's sickness or death let alone a head of state/chief/president because somehow people were conditioned to believe that these people can never be vulnerable. Anyway for us Zimbabweans the government will find it difficult to announce President's Mugabe death because people people will kill each other in stampede celebrating and wanting to see his coffin if his is really dead for sure.
Brenda Moyo, Harare - Zimbabwe

I remember when the late king of Ashanti died and was announced by the BBC correspondent in Ghana, the Ashanti chiefs were after him [and he went into hiding] because it is a taboo to announce the king's death if it was not coming from the palace.Elton, Kumasi, Ghana

Isn't this similar to Cuba and how the Castros handled their transition of power? I can see both sides of the argument. I think a head of state's health/illness should be public knowledge, yet I can understand issues of what happens to the state after their death or during their incapacity. I don't know the specific laws in the countries that many of you have posted about. But my thought is if there were specific laws and policies around what to do in the event of illness or death then that would take away the confusion of what happens next. The nation would know who the interim successor is, when the next election will be held etc.
L Arnold, USA

Among the Alur of north-western Uganda and eastern DR Cong the king does not die. When he actually, well, dies a new king has to be inaugurated by the chiefs and elders who have to be notified of the ceremony. Messengers are sent to the elders and chiefs not with the message that the king has died but are told "cak u oiy" meaning "the milk has spilled"!Mike, Kampala, Uganda

When a traditional ruler dies in Luawa chiefdom in Kailahun district, eastern Sierra Leone, it is abominable to be heard crying. Until the spirits of the beyond pronounce the death everybody pretends the chief's condition is critical until such time. That is when even the loved ones including wives, children and closed friends and relatives can show any emotion publicly. The spirits are no more than the same people that they see everyday.

Motioning with her hands, my grandma forbade us not to talk about the death of Dr Kwame Nkrumah even though the death had been announced on the radio. I was 13 years old and questioned my faculties why I couldn't talk about it. I guess he appeared as a super human being to my illiterate grandma and feared his spirit lives on.
henry d, bear

Your article is really true and thank you for that. But one thing people of our great continent should know is that, political rulers are not traditional rulers. The political ruler rules over many ethnic groups in a country and a traditional ruler rules a particular ethnic group with their own traditions. So it is not the same as we might think. If Africa has adapted to a democratic rule, the African should go with all that implies to democracy. We should stop all these cover-up for our presidents for they are not traditional rulers.
Nana Akua, Abidjan, Ivory Coast

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