Why should heads of state collapse in public?

AS a norm, heads of state never allow themselves to collapse or fall down in public, because it is a sign of weakness. But in the last few months, two of them – one in Europe, another in Africa – have been a rare exception.

 President Nicolas Sarkozy of France collapsed when jogging in late July this year, causing serious security concerns and embarrasment to the French public and government, which issued a statement citing fatigue linked to a large workload. This week, on the first Sunday of October 2009, Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete, followed suit.

He collapsed and cut short his speech to thousands of people attending the African Inland Church (AIC) Centenary Jubilee celebrations at the CCM Kirumba Stadium in Mwanza City, on the shores of Africa’s largest lake, Victoria. Security people rushed him into a private room where he was quickly attended to, given a brief rest, then released to join panicking bishops and other dignitaries on the stage, as the crowd quietly observed one of the rarest happenings, and others silently prayed for his quick recovery.

When he was finally seated, he was quick to comment: “it’s my fault; my aides advised me to rest after a long trip and busy schedule but I ignored them. Next time I will listen to what they tell me.” But the damage was done and questions raised about his health stability and the seriousness of his assistants in managing his official and personal undertakings without risking national panic and chaos.

Although the State House Directorate of Comunications issued a quick statement citing the president’s fatigue after a long trip from the US and a heavy workload; and the President’s Personal Office promised looking into rescheduling his programme to give him a breathing space, questions about his medical fitness remained unanswered. This was Kikwete’s third collapse in public, in 12 years.

Once, as minister for foreign affairs and international cooperation, he collapsed at Brussels airport on his way to Cuba. He was hospitalised for eight hours before he regained strenghth to continue with his trip.

As a presidential candidate in 2005, he collapsed on stage one day before the polling day as he gave his last speech at a public rally in Jangwani grounds, in Dar es Salaam City, in front of the media, the crowd and dignitaries including former presidents Ali Hassan Mwinyi and Benjamin Mkapa. It was a shocking event, as he fell down from the stage, and security people rushed him to a military hospital in Dar es Salaam.

When he recovered later, he spoke to the media citing campaign fatigue. He added that he had spent the whole day fasting. Much as many people felt sympathetic for him, the explanation was not strong enough to dispel public fears and queries about the soundness of his health. Again, it was not clear why his assistants would let him fast on such a busy day – although shortly before he fell down, he had been sipping water as he addressed the rally.

One understands that on all occasions, he must have been the most affected and embarrassed individual; but it is obvious neither he nor his assistants learnt any lesson. Yes, the president has had a long trip to the US, then back to Tanzania where he officiated at the 55th Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference in Arusha, before going to Mwanza.

But this is not enough explanation in a country where most of his people work longer hours and harder than he does; they sleep fewer hours, eat a less-balanced diet once a day, earn below one dollar a day, face the risk of diseases and hunger throughout the year; and yet they manage to stay firm and going. Given the baby-like previledges he enjoys as president, with all material and human facilities surrounding him, he should be last person to cite fatigue as an excuse for collapsing in public.

After all, why should tax payers’ money be spent on the president’s aides who do not do their job properly? And why shouldn’t someone take responsibility for this failure? But most importantly, doesn’t the president’s office think the public need to know the state of their president’s health, especially now that he has repeatedly collapsed and fallen down before their very eyes?

Thanks to public pressure, the president’s personal medical practitioner, Dr. Peter Mfisi, has ultimately given an official statement insisting the president has no serious medical problem – which he cannot reveal anyway, even if it existed – but we still need to read between the lines revelations that the president has constantly been troubled by a cervical spinal complication and an increase in levels of blood.

Interestingly, one sentence stands out in Dr. Mfisi’s statement: “we have learnt a lesson, and we pledge to be more careful…”  One hopes it is not a politically driven statement. 

But the only way for us to take the president’s people seriously, if they have truly learnt a lesson, is if they will never again embarrass the president by letting him collapse in public. Not for the fourth time.