Prof. John Atta Mills doesn’t look as healthy as he used to. But does it matter?

For months, people have been talking about Prof. Mills’ health. It’s been the subject of numerous newspaper headlines. ‘Prof. Mills in Coma’, one headline screamed rather alarmingly, suggesting that the former vice president and presidential candidate of the NDC had lost consciousness. But, as it turned out, all the story said was that he was seeking medical treatment in South Africa for some disease.
Prior to the publication of the latest wave of newspaper reports about his health (or lack thereof), Prof. Mills had been literally pummeled with sometimes embarrassing questions about whether or not he was fit enough for the rigours of campaigning for president. To one such question, he answered that he could run from Axim to Paga. That was an exaggeration on the part of Prof. Mills. I bet he can’t even run the length of the Accra-Tema Motorway. I believe he said he could run the entire breadth of Ghana out of exasperation. Why is Prof. Mills’ health an issue? I think it shouldn’t be.
We all fall ill once in a while. The fittest amongst us could be the weakest tomorrow. And the weakest amongst us will not necessarily be dumbest. Also the strongest amongst us might not necessarily be the wisest. I’ve seen strong people who are all brawn but no brain.
So whether Prof. Mills has a sinus infection or a weak heart or a pair of shrinking balls doesn’t matter. The real question is: is he mentally fit to make all the important decisions that affect us all if he’s elected president? So far he’s not given any of us any reason to think that he’s gone ‘gaga’ up there. I don’t think his grey matter has turned red. And that’s all that matters.
Even in the department of physical fitness, I don’t think he’s doing bad at all. I’m sure he can’t run 10 kilometres but the man has been moving from house-to-house, canvassing for votes. It’s not an easy thing for a man in his 60s to be walking such long distances, sometimes in the scorching heat of the sun. So let’s give Prof. Mills a break and stop asking if he’s healthy. If he was sick and dying, it wouldn’t need much telling, would it? You don’t go to a dying man to ask him if he’s healthy, do you? So if Prof. Mills is walking about, struggling to make sure that he doesn’t lose a third time, I don’t see the point in asking him about him if he thinks he’s going to die soon.
Prof. Mills might have lost some weight over the past few years (and I am sure it has nothing to do with him going to the gym every day). But he’s explained that he’s been receiving treatment for a disease of the sinuses. That’s all we need to know, I guess. I think in a country where our leaders refuse to tell us about their health conditions, it was admirable that Prof. Mills boldly told the whole nation what he’s been dealing with. It took quite him quite a while to tell us, but he finally did and that’s good.
Most of us will not go around telling people about our diseases. It’s only human. Political office seekers are not required to tell us what’s wrong with them and their job really is just to tell us only what (they think) is right with them. That’s the only way they would get our votes. So it’s truly a mark of strong leadership when people in power (or those who aspire to it) muster the courage to reveal the specifics of their physical frailties.
We are in Ghana but we know that the vice president of the United States has had a pacemaker for so long and he undergoes regular by-pass surgeries, which are often the subject of lengthy reports on the international news media. A few months before he left office, former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair was rushed to hospital after he complained of some dizziness. Nelson Mandela has been receiving treatment for prostate cancer for years. The current British prime minister, Gordon Brown is blind in the left eye. These people are among the most influential leaders of our time. We know what we know about them because they don’t mind letting people know that they are as human as we all are and, therefore, susceptible to disease.
The problem with us is that our leaders tend to want us to believe that they are demi-gods – nothing goes wrong with them. And that’s the reason why Prof. Mills’ opponents have been trying so hard to make the rest of the nation believe that he’s not a well man and therefore not fit to be president. It also explains why it took Prof. Mills quite a while to publicly admit that he’s been receiving treatment for some disease. I commend him for his courage and I think all our other leaders should learn from his example. Disease doesn’t necessarily translate into incapacitation. Dick Cheney, arguably the second most powerful man on earth, has a very weak heart but he does his job. Many will say not quite well, but he does it all the same. Parliament recently passed a Disability Bill and the idea is to stop discrimination against disabled people and make it possible for them to participate actively in nation building. It surely helps if our politicians stop creating the impression that a man with a sinus infection (or any other disease) cannot lead this country.
Furthermore, in a country where we are encouraging people to get tested for a disease like HIV and for HIV-positive people to help in the campaign to check the spread of the disease, it’s a curious contradiction for our leaders to be making political capital out of their opponents’ less-stigmatized ailments. If Prof. Mills is being derided for being sick, what would people say if Kojo Mensah came out to tell the whole nation that he’s HIV-positive? Would he even consider getting tested?
I hope that Prof. Mills’ (ill-)health is not going to be an issue in the electioneering for the December elections. If it ever comes up again at all, it should be because our political leaders want to use it to cause change in attitudes. In our culture, people with any form of disease or deformity cannot be chiefs. In a democracy things do not work like that. Otherwise, Gordon Brown wouldn’t have been at No. 10.
*First published on February 2, 2008

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