From Pope Benedict XVI to Jacinda Ardern: The Challenge of Poor Health versus National Leadership

From Pope Benedict XVI to Jacinda Ardern: The Challenge of Poor Health versus National Leadership

Bola A. Akinterinwa 

Pope Benedict XVI was a former Head of the Catholic Church worldwide, a Pope Emeritus who lived for 95 years (1927-2022) before he passed away in a monastery in the Vatican on Saturday, 31st December, 2022. In other words, he was an old man before he passed on. His passing on at old age was very significant in terms of what he stood for before his death. He was specially recognised for being the first Catholic pontiff in about 600 years to resign his position as Pope. He did not seek to die in office. He recognised his failing health and incapacity to carry the heavy burden of leadership.

His successor, Pope Francis, said of him at the Saint Peter’s Basilica, that Pope Benedict XVI was a ‘noble person, so kind and we feel such gratitude in our hearts, gratitude to God for giving him to the Church, and to the world.’ More important, Pope Francis also expressed ‘gratitude to him for all the good he accomplished and above all for his witness of faith and prayer, especially in these last years.’ This is one legacy for which he would always be remembered. But why resign from office? He had been contemplating resigning since 2002.

Jacinda Ardern was born on 26th July, 1980. She became the Prime Minister of New Zealand and the Leader of the Labour Party in 2017. She was elected at the age of 37 years and was therefore adjudged as the youngest female Head of Government. She has faced several challenges which partly explain her decision to resign with effect from 7th February 2023. The challenges included the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorist attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, White Island volcanic eruption in Napier, and political challenges. Prime Minister Ardern did not principally announce her resignation because of these challenges but mainly because of self-recognition of incapacity and incapability to carry the burden of the challenges, that is, the inability to deliver the mandate she swore to execute. 

Put differently, the issue of poor health as a critical challenge to performance of official duties, prompted Pope XVI to opt to resign. It is noteworthy that Pope Francis, his successor was scheduled to pay official visit from January 31st to February 5th, 2023 to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan following his inability to travel as earlier scheduled. As noted by Mercedes de la Torre, a Mexican journalist based in Rome and reporting on the Vatican since 2006,‘the Holy Father intended ‘to visit the cities of Kinshasa and Goma from July 2nd to 5th and Juba, the capital of South Sudan, from July 5th to 7th (2022) but had to postpone the trip for medical reasons.’ 

In the same vein, for various considerations, the Prime Minister of New Zealand also announced to resign her position, though quite younger a person than Pope XVI. Again, but why? Regardless of the reasons for resigning, there is no disputing the fact that self-appraisal of inability in the discharge of official duties is an expression of self-probity, integrity of purpose, non-selfishness and most patriotic way of ensuring national security, economic growth and development, as well as collective happiness. By resigning and paving way for a more capable hand, more time is not wasted on non-productive political governance. This is why the rationales for resignations of Pope XVI and Jacinda Ardern should be comparatively explicated in the context of Nigeria’s 2023 presidential elections with the ultimate objective of drawing lessons for the future.

Incapacity versus National Leadership

In Africa, many people aspire to provide leadership of their countries but care less about the situation of their health. Many people even simply slump and die during political campaigns. They simply fail to recognise the situation of their poor health. For instance, there is nothing wrong in seeking to become the president of a country. It is a good thing to so desire. In this regard, however, it cannot be sufficient to aspire without having good health to sustain the aspiration. Good health undoubtedly enhances ability, capacity and mental alertness for nation-building. Poor health cannot. It only undermines ability and capacity. It deepens incapacity to act objectively, constructively and expeditiously.

Additionally, it cannot be sufficient to be elected and not know when one’s body is weakening and to decide when to call it quit. Without doubt, Pope Benedict XVI’s case of poor health as a reason to resign his position as Head of the Catholic Church is a relevant case in point. His case raises many controversial issues in Nigeria’s electoral politics and particularly as regards Nigerian leaders. In Africa, and more so in Nigeria, it is considered an offence to seek to know the situation of health of a leader. It is seen to be a matter of private life, whereas, the leader is occupying a public office which requires public accountability and transparency in political governance. The health situation of political leaders is always of public concern and news in developed countries, but the contrary is the case in Nigeria. This is in spite of the fact that the same leaders fund their medical bills with public funds.

The point of Prof. Adekeye Adebajo of the Institute of African Thought and Conversation (IPATC), University of Johannesburg, is pertinent here. He noted in his article, “Opinion: Africa’s Sick Presidents,” of June 6, 2017, that “local journalists have often been barred from reporting on the health of leaders under threat of arrest, while various presidential spokesmen either keep mute or report the leader as being “hale and hearty” or “fit and fiddle.” This has led to sometimes farcical situations.  The editor of a Guinean newspaper was arrested in 2008 for carrying a photo of an ailing president, Lansana Conté, and forced to publish a different picture of a more, sprightly president. But Conté still died a week later’ (vide

Prof. Adebajo also recalled that ‘since 2008, the leaders of nine countries –Nigeria (Umaru Yar’Adua, pericarditis), Gabon (Omar Bongo, intestinal cancer), Guinea (Lansana Conté, undisclosed), Guinea Bissau (Bacai Sanha, diabetes), Ghana (John Atta Mills, stroke and throat cancer), Malawi (Bingu wa Mutharika, heart attack), Ethiopia (Meles Zenawi, undisclosed), Zambia (Levy Mwana, stroke, and Michael Sata, undisclosed) – died in office of illness.’

And true enough, many are the reasons for wanting to die in office. Most African leaders are fantastically corrupt and fraudulent. They need to remain in power to be protected under the rule of immunity from prosecution. Some of them want to enjoy state burial while some of them need state funding for medical cover for their general family. Whatever is the case, what the leaders are hiding eventually kill them and information on the cause of their death is generally revealed in their post-mortem reports. Consequently, hiding information about the ill-health of any leader can only be for a temporary time. 

The ideal thing is to have an open door policy regarding the health status of all leaders for the purposes of good leadership. Hiding one’s disease or ailment is self-deceit. Self-deceit is crime against oneself. Whoever engages in self-deceit can never be trusted of capability to tell others the truth. Self-deceit is unpatriotic and can be very misleading in political governance.

For instance, Ghanaian President, Dr John Evans Atta, died in office on July 22, 2012. Before his death he had not been well and unable to fully execute his duties for some time. By the time he knew that his illness was to become an impediment to good performance, why should he not resign? African leaders hardly accept to leave office even at the end of their electoral mandate. They are sit tight presidents. In fact, the Brookings institution has revealed a list of 19 countries that have lost a sitting president or Head of State: Algeria, Angola, Botswana, Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Comoros, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Gabon, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria and Zambia. With Gabon, Guinea and Nigeria having lost each two sitting presidents, the total number of leaders who have died in office is 22.

What is of concern here is the Brookings institution’s observation that ‘many African governments adamantly conceal their ailing leader’s health status. In fact, in some African countries, discussions of a leader’s health are considered as criminal offences punishable by death.’ And more significantly, ‘the phenomenon of concealing a leader’s health is not unique to Africa: US presidents Kennedy, Reagan, and Franklin Roosevelt, as well as French president François Mitterrand, all concealed illnesses while in power. However none of these men died in power as a result of ill-health’ (vide, “The Health of African leaders: A call for more transparency, Tuesday, August 7, 2012”, by Mwangi S. Kimenyi and Vera Songwe). As shown above, if African and American leaders do conceal their illness, how do we explain the fact that the American leaders do not die in office, but African leaders do die in office? Why should it be so?

While Pope Benedict XVI openly told the world about his failing health and the need to take a rest and address his medical fatigue, African leaders not only often take the bad end of the stick, but also take sanctions against whoever ordinarily talks about their ill health. In Nigeria, there is nothing to suggest that all the presidential candidates do not have one medical problem or the other. People, for various reasons, think it is only the All Progressives Congress standard bearer, Senator Bola Ahmed Tinubu, who may be sickly. What prevents making a full medical report on every presidential candidate a requirement and a condition sine qua non for election eligibility to avoid a midway-term medical emergency after election?

In fact, funding is another major issue in the quest to live well. When President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) was elected in 2015 as President of Nigeria, his state of health was, at best, very poor. He was very fragile. The fragility of his health and old age was ignored by voters. After his election, PMB had to go on medical tourism to the United Kingdom for four months. As explicated by The Guardian editorial of 19 July 2017, entitled, ‘African leaders and medical tourism,’ ‘things were never this bad. It is also true that Africa, especially Nigeria, has very competent hands that can render that the Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) and the University College Hospital (UCH), Ibadan, were once on the top list of health facilities in Africa. As Head of State then, General Yakubu Gowon’s wife had her baby at LUTH. Members of the Saudi Royal family once patronised UCH all the way from that kingdom. Also, the nation’s teaching hospital have produced first class doctors who now practises in the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia and the Caribbean to mention but a few. Indeed, some wealthy Nigerians who travelled to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s found themselves in the care of Nigerian ancestry.’ This point of observation is noteworthy: the Nigerian doctors perceived back home as incompetent end up being the same extraordinary medical consultants that have to attend to the ailments imported from Nigeria.

In this regard, if the African leaders are patriotic enough, and are especially building necessary health infrastructure, there would not have been too much of gaspillage in medical tourism. As Nyasha K. Mutizwa of the Africa News wrote on 3rd October, 2019, ‘in Uganda, the funds spent to treat top government officials abroad every year could build ten hospitals. Not only do the leaders travel with elaborate entourages, but they also travel in expensive chartered jets. For example, the cost of parking Buhari’s plane during his spell in London in 2017 is estimated at £360,000 – equivalent to 0.07% of Nigeria’s budget allocation for health in that same year.’ It is against this background that the condition of good health should be discussed in the context of the 2023 presidential elections and extent of incapacity.

2023 Presidential Elections and Incapacity

Nigeria’s 2023 presidential elections are likely to be quite interesting because of its manifestations from various perspectives. Before now, election rigging, ballot box snatching, and vote buying are some of the hallmarks of the elections. In the 2023 elections, these acts of electoral indiscipline are expected to be thrown into the garbage of history. The introduction of electronic voting, the expected impact of youth voting and entry into force of the new Electoral Act, etc. all point to the remoteness of election rigging. However, this hypothesis may not hold with the purported proven allegations by the opposition parties that the ruling party, APC, is already planning to rig the elections by seeking to print its own PVCs. The allegations were made during a press conference. 

Can the 2023 elections be free and fair in light of the allegations? Can they be free from vote buying, thuggery and violence? Without whiff of doubt, election rigging agenda is a manifestation of incapacity in different ways: incapacity to engage the rule of law, incapacity to be decent and fair, incapacity to be just and democratic, incapacity to be healthy and rational, etc. Election rigging agenda in whatever form it is manifested only has capacity to destroy national unity and happiness, as well as deepen one’s unhealthiest way of life. This is one major reason why unhealthy people cannot rule a nation-state like Nigeria.

Conversations on the 2023 have also raised leadership and incapacity questions: incapacity to maintain national cohesion and dialogue, incapacity to prevent the institutionalisation of corruption and stopping it, incapacity to evolve a healthy mind. Some political observers even say that the 2023 elections are not likely to hold, and if they do hold, they may be postponed and held in an environment of violence. The INEC first drew attention to the threats of violence. The Federal Government responded by assuring that under no circumstance would the elections be postponed. Those who look at the situation more closely have suggested that an interim government be empanelled to allow for national dialogue and peace-making, after which elections can peacefully take place. The Federal Government is vehemently opposed to it but violent attacks on INEC facilities and innocent Nigerians, particularly on the Catholic Servants of God, have not stopped. Fears of national disintegration have always been on the increase.

In fact, even if the 2023 elections are held, in whatever conditions, they cannot enhance mobilisation of people for national productivity, national security, or put an end to the existing mutual regional mistrust. The most critical of all the threats to national harmony, peace and security in Nigeria is the fear of Fulanisation of Nigeria while the other side of the Fulanisation agenda is Islamisation agenda. Rightly or wrongly, the conflict between herdsmen and farmers is presented as a resultant from the two agenda. Explained differently, it is often bandied around that the Fulani has a hegemonic agenda and that the Fulani ethnic stock does not want and is not prepared to relinquish power except in situations of force majeure. Perhaps more interestingly, it is suggested that the Fulani, and the Hausa to a limited extent, have condoned the disregard for the electoral gentlemen agreements, political party constitutions, etc. in order to sustain their hegemonic agenda.

For example, it is said, the rule of presidential rotation should have been adopted by the PDP stalwarts since Atiku Abubakar was the party’s standard bearer in 2019. It is therefore the turn of the South in 2023. In fact, the more divisive factor is the issue of having the presidential candidate and the national chairman of the party’s National Working Committee coming from the same region. Atiku Abubakar and the PDP’s National Working Committee’s Chairman, Iyorchia Ayu, are both from the North, whereas the principle is that, when this type of situation arises, it is expected that Iyorchia Ayu should resign. He has refused to do so and this has led to intra-party divisions and the emergence of the G-5 Governors, often referred to as the Governors of Integrity. The Fulani are believed to have disregarded the rotational principle.

In the same vein, it is argued that same faith joint ticket ought not to have been condoned by the Fulani if it is not because of their agenda of Fulanisation and Islamisation. Intellectual speculators have it that the APC candidate, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, is not really healthy and that, possibly sooner than later, he will be incapacitated and this will enable his vice to take over. The vice is a northerner and Atiku Abubakar of the PDP is also a northerner. Whoever therefore wins is acceptable for as longer as the Fulani hold on to power is enabled. With this type of reasoning and ardent belief that the Fulani want to dominate other ethnic groups, the aftermath of holding any election cannot but have its limitations in terms of national harmony and security. Nothing could be more interesting than what Professor Wole Soyinka was quoted as saying: ‘Northern Nigeria will continue to control the government no matter who becomes the president. This is because they created fraudulent constitution in Nigeria, fraudulent population in the Northwest and more states in the North.’ More significantly, the African Nobel Laureate from Ogun State also noted that ‘Northern Nigeria was in charge of the government when Olusegun Obasanjo and Goodluck Jonathan were president. Even if you make Igbo president, Northern Nigeria will still control the government. The best solution to Nigeria’s problem is for us to negotiate our existence.’

Three major rationales may justify Professor Soyinka postulation here: the former Libyan leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, has argued that Nigeria will never have any enduring peace until the country is divided into Muslim North and Christian South. With the recidivist and destructive activities of the Boko Haram, Gaddafi’s argument cannot be taken with kid gloves, especially when the Buhari administration claimed to have technically neutralised the Boko Haram, but only paving way for armed banditry insurrection to surface. For many, armed banditry is a reincarnation of Boko Haram. 

Secondly, Islamisation agenda is not peculiar to Nigeria. In France, Muslims tried to introduce Islamic regulations where they live and this brought a very serious opposition by indigenous French people.  Indeed, France has the biggest population of Muslims in the western world. The mere fact that the Muslims are introducing their Islamic mania of living in their areas has prompted a debate on Islamophobia and anti-Muslim racism. Many French people strongly believe that Islam is opposed to secularism and modernity. And true enough, the 2014 Pew Research Centre’s revelation that the French view Muslim minorities as favourable to the tune of 72%. Another poll showed that 74% of Muslims in France accept that there is really a conflict between living in devotion to one’s religion and living in the western secular society. Muslim individuals’ desire to integrate has been hindered by the reinforcement of cultural differences,’ This is a situation of ordre et contre-ordre égalent désordre meaning ‘order and counter order amount to disorder,’ to borrow from Wikipedia and from a French proverbial saying.

Thirdly, the proponents of Islamic fundamentalism worldwide also have the same objective of upturning the current Western order by particularly using the methods of terrorism. They want to replace western educational culture, religious traditions with theirs. This is where and why the international systems of political governance are being complicated. France wants to accommodate them since most of the Muslims in France are of Maghrebin origin and are considered as French. French constitution provides for secularity and non-state religion but the Muslims are by manu militari trying to impose Islamic culture in French settings. This is why the whole world must be more firm in the war against terror. At the epicentre of the current international terrorism is the struggle for global Islamisation, which now has the great potential to remain potent tool for global destabilisation and possible major dynamic of another world war in the foreseeable future. 

From the foregoing, there is no disputing the fact that incapacity is necessarily a negation of any quest to provide national leadership. In the same vein, the general debates held at the level of the presidential candidates in Nigeria have not clearly shown the extent of mental health and capacity of each candidate beyond political promises. And perhaps more interestingly, promises are made without articulation of the modus operandi for the achievement of the promises. All the candidates purport to be healthy and fit, and not having any inhibitions that can prevent the active discharge of their official duties. Agreed, but sight must not be lost on the need to promote self-evaluation in terms of character and self-discipline, because whoever is not honest with himself can never be honest with another person. A person who cannot lead himself right can never rightly lead others . Consequently, all those who are currently in government and all those currently aspiring to occupy public positions should all borrow a leaf from the objectivity of purpose of Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand and the late Pope Benedict XVI of the Vatican. Lack of good character, loss of traditional values of self-respect, respect for the elder, pursuit of money by crooked means, and loss of national consciousness are responsible for today’s armed bandit insurrection and boko haramism in Nigeria. This is indeed, a manifestation of a Nigerian mental illness that must be addressed by all presidential candidates during their campaigns.

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