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21.10.2008 Feature Article

Is the health of presidential candidates fair game?

At an NPP gathering (at Madina), President Kufuor was reported to have said that “John Atta Mills was unfit for the presidency, due to his health status” (Essel, 2008). The President's assertion was predicated on what he believed has been the inability of Prof. John Atta Mills to spend a considerable amount of time in the northern territories of the country (campaigning) as flag-bearer of the NDC.

This is not the first time the health of Prof. Mills has come to the fore. It came up during the NDC's presidential primaries, when Dr. Ekwow Spio-Garbrah was said to have made some statements to that effect. Also, at various points, the issue has come up on the 2008 electioneering campaign trail. Many media organizations, mainly pro-NPP newspapers, have, at one time or another, fabricated stories, mocked, and questioned the ability of the NDC flag-bearer to run the full course of the rigorous presidential campaign, let alone serve the full term, should he win the elections.

For evidential purposes, the October 1, 2007 edition of 'The Moon' and the October 02, 2007 edition of 'The New Punch' carried injurious headlines: “Mills' Doctor Angry as Mills Ignores His Instructions” and “Mills is Dying Slowly” respectively, that maligned the NDC flag-bearer Prof. Mills described both publications as fabrications and false. About four months ago, Joy FM carried the reaction of Prof. Mills to a story (carried on some Ghanaian web sites) that suggested that Prof. Mills had died in a South African hospital after undergoing surgery. More recently, a leading member of the NDC even challenged his party to replace the NDC flag-bearer with a much “healthier” candidate.

These happenings—no less the statement from President Kufuor— raise so many questions not only about journalistic ethics, but about whether the health of presidential candidates is fair game in a political campaign. Should a candidate be voted against (or not be voted for) just on the basis that s/he is not fit? And, should public officers (not only presidential candidates) make their medical records available to the voting public? Do public officers deserve some privacy? How much information is too much for the public? What did President Kufuor want to achieve with such a statement?

We have not been fortunate enough, in our part of the world, to be privy to the health conditions/information of our public officers (at least history has not told us so), unless they (the public officers) pass on. Any time there is news about some sickness involving our political leaders (especially), it's been based on some rumors started by some media organizations. Maybe it's our traditional orientation to keep everything secret, just as we do even when we have to go for a visa interview—lest some evil forces derail our chances. It has never been our tradition to go public about our health (unless under some extreme cases), more so when afflicted by some ailments. We are quite—or very starkly—different from many Americans who will not miss any opportunity to catalogue the list of illnesses they have or are suffering from.

Given these reasons, I am not surprised that Prof. Mills, himself, has not come out to tell Ghanaians what his current state of health is and why he's been making some occasional trips to South Africa. I believe that his silence on the issue (except for some occasional rejoinders to newspaper publications) has been his undoing. It has been the catalyst for all the rumor-mongering that has gone on for these couple of years, not to mention that it has served as the capital for his opponents' campaign. One of the moves the NDC campaign could have made was to have made strategic attempts to address the issue about Prof. Mills' health, instead of leaving it to the public to speculate and be fed with rumors that have only told different stories about Prof. Mills' condition.

But, is it any of our business? Yes, it is! Do Ghanaians, necessarily, need to know about the health status of the leaders who solicit their votes? I say yes! Do the health conditions of these leaders have to influence how people vote? Let's leave that to Ghanaians, who will go to the polls! Honestly, it is only fair and proper for Ghanaians to be told about the health conditions of their leaders for whom they spend so much time and resources campaigning and voting. If the voting population is passionate enough to elect leaders into office, they should know about what is happening to their leaders.

In the USA, the practice of making public the health information of political leaders is not a novelty, and it is the same for presidential candidates. In 1972, George McGovern was forced—not by law, but by some pressure from the press—to replace his running mate, Senator Thomas Eagleton of Missouri, after it was disclosed that he had been hospitalized for depression. It was not until 1992, however, that the practice became firmly prominent and established.

During the 1992 presidential campaign, the Democratic presidential candidate, Paul Tsongas' history of cancer became a central issue of his candidacy. Mr. Tsongas and two of his doctors had told the press that he was “cancer free'” after a 1986 bone-marrow transplant to treat his lymphoma, but after he suspended his unsuccessful campaign, he and his doctors revealed that he had had a recurrence of lymphoma in 1987. Mr. Tsongas died in January 1997—the same time his term was supposed to have neared its end, should he have won.

The lessons of this event sparked a new wave of interest in the health records of politicians. In this particular season, for instance, Senator McCain succumbed to media pressure and released some medical records to the media. He released only some—not all—medical records. The action by McCain opened a whole can of worms. Why did he release some and not all? And should he have released all? For what? And, for whom? How much is too much for the public?

The American public is still debating the thin line between personal privacy and the expectations that the lives of public officials be open for almost limitless scrutiny. This is a delicate issue anywhere. It is no surprise that even though the two main parties, the NDC and the NPP, agreed that it was right for public officials to disclose their health statuses, they disagreed both on the process and the extent to which the information should be put out. May be these are lessons for us!

The question, however, is: will people/opponents stop using a candidate's health status for political purposes, should s/he disclose his health status, or even release his medical record? They will not! It will not stop political opponents, in our part of the world, from politicizing the issue, and, therefore, from making political capital out of the issue. It wouldn't have stopped President Kufuor from making that pronouncement (in Madina). It would not have stopped media houses from using grim images of a dying man to represent Prof. Mills.

One of the lessons I learned from my Communications class was that you don't harp on a condition that someone has no control over for the sole purpose of scoring points. This is the main reason, I believe, President Kufuor's statement is not only unfortunate and needless, but a cheap, propagandist, smear campaign meant to create some disaffection towards Prof. Mills, but which should have no place in our body-politic. At any rate, who decides who is fit or not to stand for political office? Aren't Prof. Mills and the leadership of the NDC those who are to determine whether Prof. Mills is fit to contest or not?

On the one hand, the reason adduced by the President as basis for his assertion is not strong, and, on the other hand, a political party platform is not the avenue for making statements about a candidate's health. In fact, how is the view that Prof. Mills cannot withstand the rigors of the highest office (just because he has not been to some constituencies) a good basis that he cannot be President? More so, I have never known President Kufuor as a medical practitioner, and I am not sure that informing the gathering at Madina was a cure for Prof. Mills' condition, if he ever needs one. I agree that politics can get cynical sometimes, but, when it does, the real players should own up. I believe President Kufuor was not the right person to have made that statement (at Madina) if it needed to be made.

Let me state that the health of anyone is a delicate issue for which reason anyone needs to be careful discussing it. More importantly, any attack on a presidential candidate just because of the status of his/her health is incendiary! What if Prof. Mills or any other candidate were physically-challenged? Would the candidate be disqualified just because of his condition? Or, am I comparing two different cases? The decision about whether a candidate is fit to stand for political office, or not, should be made on constitutional basis; it should be made by a political party, and by the voting public through the ballot box. Ghanaians should assess candidates based on qualification, experience, policies, and fitness, and not some conjecture from any individual or group.

These are good lessons for our fledgling democracy, anyway. I believe these issues are a function of our growth. As a country, we have not been fortunate enough to draw many lessons from hindsight; we have, however, learned many good lessons (in the past year) about sources of funding for campaigns, especially at the party level; the recent registration exercise has also brought its problems; let's add this to all these lessons for the future.

Godwin J. Y. Agboka,

Email: [email protected]

Godwin Yaw Agboka
Godwin Yaw Agboka, © 2008

This author has authored 7 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: GodwinYawAgboka

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