Dead of State

Where politics and democracy fail, nature eventually wins. A number of tyrants and world leaders are currently sick. Ranking the illest.

Vladimir Putin’s outdoor photo ops frequently show him shirtless: straddling a stallion, stroking a rifle, marching across a riverbed. The photographs are a projection of national power, regardless of Putin being technically subordinate as President Medvedev’s prime minister.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Nigerian President Umaru Yar’Adua is languishing in a hospital in Saudi Arabia, his country a “rudderless-ship,” “floating without a captain,” since late November. And in Burkina Faso, Guinea’s junta leader is recovering from being shot in the head; he came to power thanks to a mayonnaise jar—a jar that led to events which will likely see him appear at the International Criminal Court, but more on that below.

Where politics and due process fail, nature eventually wins. There seem to be more heads of state than usual getting ill, and so we’ve done a survey of world leader health to gauge not who’s leading with an iron fist, but to see who’s fighting their country’s corner with a cold.

Our fitness quotient takes into account national life expectancy, chance of assassination, age, appearance in recent media images, likely stress of the position, and most importantly, health problems. In reverse order, these leaders truly are the illest.

President Óscar Arias

In 2007 it was tendinitis; 2008 brought a benign cyst to his vocal cords that shut him up for a month. And to complete the hat-trick, Costa Rica’s Arias got swine flu last year—the first world leader to be infected. I’ve never believed what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The truth is coming near death can be severely detrimental to your long-term health and certainly shouldn’t be recommended in sayings that encourage pursuits dangerous to one’s well being. And when a president sneezes, the whole country gets covered in phlegm.

Fitness Quotient: 714.8

Captain Moussa Dadis Camara

Guinea junta leader Captain Moussa Dadis Camara seized power in a military coup after the death of dictator Lansana Conté in December 2008. The past year in Guinea has shown that when a head of state dies, worse can follow. But it started well: In March, the A.P. profiled the buoyant and healthy Camara and his wont to appear in nightly television shows in which he scolded members of the former regime for their ostentatious lives and corruptions. He’s like the Guinean Glenn Beck, minus the crocodile tears. The A.P. quoted Richard Moncrieff, the author of a report on Guinea for the International Crisis Group, who commented, “It is possible that he is sincere… But what if he is sincere and dangerous? Young men in power usually go wrong.”

The country began to suffer after September’s pro-democracy demonstrations in Guinea were put down in bloody fashion, with the presidential guard responsible for 157 deaths and hundreds of cases of torture and brutal violence documented. Camara got his comeuppance in December when one of his lieutenants shot him in the head (severly denting his fitness quotient); the lieutenant hoped to blame the massacre on Camara and bury responsibility alongside him. Camara is recovering in neighboring Burkina Faso. The world would like him to stay there, with the U.S. Deputy Secretary of State explaining that acting president Konate is “an ideal transition leader” to take the country back toward democracy and away from the liklihood of civil war.

But there’s a further twist threatening Guinea’s recovery. Konate is rumored to be suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, though ministers describe his visit to Senegal as a poltical engagement, not a hospital appointment. Konate lost out at leading the junta and taking the presidency after drawing lots from a mayonnaise jar with Camara, but Konate is taking positive steps: investigating and arresting those involved in the September massacre, allowing the opposition to name the prime minister. And he’s not too interested in becoming president himself, so he can just sit back, recover from his cirrhosis, and ensure no one threatens the country again. After a year of talk-show fun, brutal violence, and assassination attempts, Guinea needs a chance to convalesce.

Fitness Quotient: 503.1

Senior General Than Shwe

Burmese president Than Shwe must wish he was more famous than Aung San Suu Kyi. All the work he puts in, and she just sits enjoying house arrest, getting more famous with every passing year. Following anti-government protests, Shwe’s wife (and pets) fled the country in 2007. So I assume high stress levels. Shwe stayed behind with his diabetes, potential intestinal cancer, and a 76-year-old heart.

Seriously, what is it with these autocratic, genocidal dicatotors and their terrible illnesses? I guess it makes sense that the leaders who have been in the job longest are the both the most hated and the most ill. Shwe has been in and out of Singapore’s General Hospital and he’ll no doubt be stressed by elections planned to happen later this year. The general has failed to turn up for important presitigious functions in recent years; a cult of personality will be surely eroded if you don’t show up to your own Look-at-This-Fucking-Missile Parade.

Fitness Quotient: 471.1

President Robert Mugabe

Mugabe really won’t budge. A faked election helped him last time but Prime Minister Tsvangirai leads the government now. With international and regional support, Mugabe’s time is almost up. His wife is already looking into property in Hong Kong, where his daughter goes to school. He has been variously placed visiting clinics in South Africa and Dubai, and seeing Iranian doctors. Mugabe could be suffering from prostate cancer, and a bandage on his head may have been necessary after falling and hitting his head following a heart attack in Malaysia. Isn’t world leader death gossip interesting! When the lives of millions of citizens depend on the ability of their head of state to do his job, it’s not just interesting, it’s crucial.

Fitness Quotient: 455.1

President Umaru Yar’Adau

Nigerian president Yar’Adau has been hospitalized in Saudi Arabia with acute pericarditis (an inflammation of the lining of the heart) since the end of November and is unwilling to step aside. He may lead the fragile Niger Delta amnesty program to a watery grave as militants become fearful that the nation may renege on Yar’Adua’s promises of a stipend and investment in the delta region if they put down their arms.

Conspiractists cite an anonymous hospital official who said Yar’Adua died Dec. 12, leading the president to give a phone interview to the B.B.C. a month later to deny his own death. Power is yet to be transferred to vice president and rival Goodluck Jonathan. With the presidency generally rotating between Muslim north and Christian south, Yar’Adua doesn’t want to give power back after only two and a half years of northern rule. Yar’Adua’s death would further dent positive progressive reform, but as long as he stays in Saudi Arabian political limbo his country suffers.

Fitness Quotient: 443.8

Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il

Since 2003 rumors have been spun that he’s already dead, and has been replaced with body doubles. Depending on whom you believe, he’s suffering the effects of a stroke, diabetes, and pancreatic cancer. It all adds up to give him a very low fitness quotient. Maybe this will be his year! But even if he does die, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that they’ll prop him up in a chair wearing those awesome dark glasses, and wheel him out for ceremonial occasions.

He could even live on through one of three sons; Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-chu are most likely to succeed the Supreme Leader. That’s the ultimate form of nepotism: When you’re replaced with a son who becomes you, takes your name, and is you incarnate. North Koreans could buy it: Some believe the weather varies depending on his mood. Third son Kim Jong-nam was mooted as a potential successor but he has fallen out of favor, perhaps due to an embarrassing incident when he traveled to Tokyo Disneyland on a Dominican passport and was sent back home by Japanese authorities. Let’s hope that when Kim Jong-il finally drops, Jong-nam can take control, but I’m not sure if making the country one big theme park would make things any better.

Fitness Quotient: 369.1


TMN Editor Mike Deri Smith is no gourmet, he just has an abnormally large stomach. He lives in London. More by Mike Deri Smith