In Zimbabwe, a lawyer, Tinomuda Chinoka, recently applied to the highest court for an investigation into whether President Robert Mugabe, now 92, is fit to hold office.
It appears that Mugabe has been making more than the usual number of blunders, increasing speculation about his state of health.
Overstaying your welcome
Heads of states' departure from office is not always in a manner of their choosing. Some drop dead on the job, or lurch out because of serious ill health. Then there are those who get levered out or even assassinated.
The ones who are wise quit while they’re at the top of their game. They retire before they must, while there are still many who cheer for them and will remember them fondly.
Read: Life after retirement
Unfortunately many heads of state overstay their welcome by a long shot, with their good reputation and popularity destroyed by increasing megalomania and undemocratic behaviour.
Some who are able to avoid prosecution for gross criminal conduct while in office fear they’ll be arrested and tried if they ever give up the safe haven of office. Some suffer from the delusion that nobody can run the country as well as they do and that everything would collapse without them at the helm.
Chinoka points out that a president lacking the capacity to do a proper job is a risk to democracy, damages the constitution, and risks the prosperity and security of a nation. He listed a number of concerns, which have been widely reported but not expertly assessed.
There’s been continuing controversy about Mugabe’s health generally, encouraged by his many secretive trips abroad for health care. Much has been made of a couple of occasions when he stumbled and nearly fell in public, but many people trip, slip or fall, especially when they get older, and in situations when they are distracted. Though embarrassing, this isn’t likely to be sinister.
He does it again!
More ominous are two events reflecting on his mental state. The first was when, at the opening of parliament, he read the wrong speech, one he’d already given only three weeks earlier. It’s routine for a politician to deliver a speech written by others, and to assume that their assistants would give him the correct script. But one would expect him to immediately recognise that it was the wrong text and ask for the right one – not to redeliver the entire speech without realising there's something wrong.
His spokesman said there’d been a mix-up in the office, and that “corrective measures are being considered”. You’d expect his staff to be especially alert to ensure nothing like this could happen again. But only months later Mugabe did it again – at his party’s annual conference he again read the wrong speech.
The excuse was that on the first occasion he had been heckled by some MP’s, or perhaps he was a bit distracted. The second time he recognised the problem, and after welcoming the audience to the wrong meeting, said, “Ahhhhhh, this is wrong.” But then, fidgeting, he started again, read the same wrong material again, then stopped and began speaking off the cuff in a rather disjointed manner.
After some chatter behind the scenes, his associates decided to write a note for the president, with a copy of the right text, saying he was reading the wrong speech, and suggesting he put it aside and turn to the right one. But he stuck with the old version.
These incidents are possible evidence of mental infirmity, such as a possible early dementia, though a diagnosis is not possible without the results of a detailled examination and assessment.
Such incidents point out the need for a country to have a properly thought-out and functional system in place for when a head of state becomes significantly ill, physically or mentally. There must be procedures for political succession, especially in the event of the death of a president or king. It gets difficult, though, when a ruler becomes mentally or physically incapacitated, and unable or unwilling to recognise the need to resign.
Roman emperors like Tiberius, Nero and a number of others were distinctly unstable. Caligula made his horse a senator, married his sister and had political prisoners beheaded during banquets. Commodus had a servant put to death for preparing his bath too cold.
Heliogabalus became Emperor at the age of 14 and was assassinated at 18. He married 5 times, but was bisexual, possible transsexual, and took male lovers among his courtiers, charioteers and athletes, one of whom he called his husband, and turned the Royal Palace into a public brothel in whose activities he participated. It’s hard to tell fact from fancy in the stories about him. It was reported that he had his chariot pulled by teams of naked women, and selected men for high office on the basis of the size of their sexual organs.
Read: Penis size matters, say researchers
He hosted exotic dinner parties, serving camel heels, nightingales’ tongues, the severed heads of parrots and flamingo brains, and at one feast he had a number of guests tied to a water-wheel which drowned them. On another occasion he let groups of lions and leopards loose on his guests. He also put poisonous snakes among the crowds at public games.
This makes Nkandla and “fire-pools” seem dull by comparison!
At least two Islamic Caliphs were known as “The Mad”, as well as many European royals. King Charles VI of France was known as “Charles the Mad”, and Queen Maria I of Portugal, “Maria the Mad”. Then there was “Mad King” Ludwig of Bavaria, who was deposed after four psychiatrists declared him paranoid, though they never examined him and 3 had never even met him.
What do you do with a sick president?
Let’s look at some notable examples of mentally unfit leaders:
Woodrow Wilson was American President from 1913 to 1921. In September 1919 he began to experience severe headaches. He collapsed, and was rushed back to Washington where he had a serious stroke. For weeks he was bed-ridden and would see nobody but his wife and doctor, who decided to keep his illness secret from the public.
In 1920 his condition became public. The Constitution needed a certificate confirming his "inability to discharge the powers and duties” of office, but his wife, doctor and assistant were not willing to attest to this.
Over the following 17 months his wife would emerge with verbal or written instructions from the president, though the signature was always illegible. He remained in a wheelchair until his death, his mind wandering and his memory poor.
Read: Memory loss
For the current candidates competing for the office of President of the USA, no medical records have been released. Senator Bernie Sanders will be 75, but apart from hernia repair surgery in November, he seems physically fit. Hillary Clinton’s health is less exemplary and she has fallen more often and more seriously than Mugabe. She fainted and fell twice while a senator, and twice as Secretary of State.
Americans try to find solutions
The American constitution has tried harder than ours to deal with such problems, but still fails. The office is supposed to pass to the vice president when a president is unable to fulfil his duties. But the constitution says nothing about how his ability or inability to hold office is to be determined, or how power should be transferred.
This issue came to a head in 1881 when President James Garfield was shot in the back by an assassin, but only died 2 months later. He was unable to fulfil his duties, and cabinet wanted the vice president Chester Arthur to become acting president. Nothing was done, partly because it wasn’t clear how the president, if he recovered, would legally regain office.
Read: 30% of South Africans experience mental problems
An incapacitated president would need to notify Congress that he needed to be replaced. If unable or unwilling to do so, the vice-president or a majority of the Cabinet might be able to act, but would fear that it might look as if they were plotting a takeover.
In the days when kings and queens still had actual power, a regent was appointed when a king died and his son was too young to take over the reins. The regent took office until the boy was old enough to rule the country.
In the nineteenth century, in the case of “Mad King George III” of England, the “Care of King During his Illness . . .” Act of 1811 was promulgated, which allowed the Prince of Wales to replace him in official matters until his death in 1820.
Returning to Zim . . .
To return to Robert Mugabe, the best thing would be if the constitution could provide a tactful way for the removal of a president once he is no longer capable of fulfilling his function – even if it means removing him against his will.
Your retirement – a healthy mindset
Mentally demanding jobs keep brains sharp
Mugabe: MP 'satanic' for backing gay rights
Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.