Why you won’t know when President Uhuru has flu

President Uhuru

The health of a top politician is often kept top secret. That includes the health of their wives.

The Kibaki family kept the health of former First Lady Mama Lucy Kibaki under wraps, and even when she was in critical condition at the Nairobi Hospital, the public was informed that she was making ‘improved recovery’. She died shortly after being flown to Bupa Cromwell Hospital, England, in April 2016.

Retired President Kibaki’s health problems have been traced to the near-fatal accident he was involved in while on his campaign trail in the run-up to the 2002 General Election, and which explains his  laboured gait.

He also suffered memory lapses as Daniel Branch writes in Kenya: Between Hope and Despair 1963-2011, such that on his official tour of the US at the start of his presidency in 2003, he introduced all members of his entourage as “Francis Muthaura,” who was then head of the civil service and secretary to the cabinet.

Have you ever heard that President Uhuru Kenyatta has been taken ill?

There are several reasons a top politician’s health is kept secret, including the fact that one provision of removing an incumbent is pegged on failing health.

Even his father, the late Mzee Jomo Kenyatta, had a heart condition that was kept secret even when he suffered a mild stroke in 1968, and he refused to be fitted with a heart pacer.

Not even the idea of calling Dr Christiaan Bernard, the top cardiovascular surgeon who operated the world’s first open heart surgery in 1967, could have him allow his body to be “opened up” as Duncan Ndegwa notes in his 2009 memoires, Walking in Kenyatta Struggles: My Story.

Unbeknown to Jomo, a team of nurses in an ambulance fitted with oxygen tanks always followed the presidential motorcade “just in case.”

The man who suffered eczema in Kapenguria prison also had eyesight problems. But Jomo preferred his speeches written in large fonts than be caught dead wearing eyeglasses!

His predecessor, retired president Daniel arap Moi went for a cataract operation in Israel and caused a near-panic in 1996. Kenyans were used to him making news headlines, and they thus feared the worst with some government officials not reporting to work.

Former president Daniel Arap Moi

While State security can be compromised when the failing health of a president becomes public knowledge, besides shaking confidence in the financial markets leading to tumbling stock prices, there are other reasons for keeping such health records private.

One is “retention of power,” according to George Musamali, a former senior GSU officer, who argues that keeping a leader’s health record under wraps is also more pronounced in authoritarian regimes.

“It is only in dictatorial regimes where people want to cling to power by making the president ‘immortal.’ There is no good reason why a VIP’s health should be kept secret,” states the security analyst who provides VIP protection services.

Musamali opines that in open societies, the health of the president should not be a guarded secret by close handlers who fear a petitioner can file a suit in court on the premise that the leader is chronically ill to dispense duties effectively.

Indeed, even in America, former president Barack Obama’s health was kept secret, including citizens not knowing that his personal physician is always in his entourage. The First Family has whole floors in a facility just reserved for them, but the public never knows when they go for check-ups.

And it didn’t begin with Obama.

President Franklin Roosevelt, the 32nd president from 1933 to 1945, suffered from polio, confining him to a wheelchair, but his crutches and leg braces were largely kept away from public scrutiny.

Revealing health problems can be used for geopolitical reasons. During the Nuclear Arms Control Agreements, which Russia had refused to sign with America, ‘Uncle Sam’ simply used the knowledge that Boris Yeltsin injected himself with insulin to control his diabetes at 4pm and scheduled the nuclear talks around that time in 1993.

His handlers were horrified when the hard-drinking Yeltsin hurriedly signed the agreement to rush for his insulin session!