On the death of presidents and ignoring the averages

"Perhaps this is an awkward time to talk about the line of succession"

While it is still unclear exactly what has happened, it is looking more and more likely that Malawi’s president, Bingu wa Mutharika, has either died or been severely incapacitated by heart failure.

As Kim Yi Dionne points out, the constitution clearly identifies the vice president , Joyce Banda, as successor. This is where things get a little awkward, as Kim points out:

Shortly after Mutharika and Banda won office (by large margins), President Mutharika had plans for his brother, Peter Mutharika to succeed him in office. Banda was marginalized and eventually expelled from the ruling party. She was also removed from ministerial posts and government attempted to have her removed from office (which is unconstitutional). Facing antagonism from the government, she later formed a new party, the People’s Party.

Whether or not the top brass at the the DPP (Bingu’s party) decide to swallow this bitter pill and embrace Banda remains to be seen.

An equally interesting question which has been bothering me all morning: why hadn’t anyone considered this in advance? Bingu wa Mutharika was a frail 78 year old whose increasingly autocratic rants were seen by many as a sign of impending dementia. The probability that he would die or become severely disabled during a five year term were significant enough to warrant some extra planning.

This isn’t an infrequent occurrence – looking back ten years reveals a startling number of African presidents falling off their perches: Zambia, Chad, Togo, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Gabon and Nigeria all had presidents die of poor health whilst in office, all from heart attacks, strokes or cancer. Most of these led to periods of political uncertainty and instability. Even the near-misses are problematic: Mwai Kibaki’s stroke in 2003 led to a substantial shift in both policy and personality – Michela Wrong suggested it drastically hampered the government’s ability to deal with corruption.

Unless the Government of Malawi soon reveals some cunning plan to prevent Joyce Banda from becoming president, it will be obvious that they never really considered this as a potential outcome. Was this sheer stupidity or hubris? Perhaps presidents can’t imagine their own deaths, so do little to prepare for it. There are a few shining outliers out there that might be biasing the results: both Teodoro Obiang in Equatorial Guinea and Mugabe in Zimbabwe have shown a remarkable ability to endure, despite cancer and general evilness.

Voters often associate old-age with wisdom and power, substantially more so in countries like Malawi. Yet these preferences constantly expose political systems to new risks. During the US elections in 2008, an actuarial firm rightly pointed out that John McCain only had a 75% chance of living through a full 8 year term. Despite these unnerving numbers (especially considering who would have been next in line), very little was made of McCain’s age-related morbidity or mortality.

As a 61-year-old-woman, Joyce Banda’s prospects of reaching the end of the current presidential term without succumbing to illness, senility or death are significantly higher than Bingu’s evidence successor, his 72-year-old brother Peter Mutharika. If the Government does find a way to thwart the constitution, and Bingu’s wishes are granted posthumously – likely guaranteeing his brother two terms in office – Malawi’s chances of suffering yet another presidential death rise substantially.

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