Last month, Malawian President Peter Mutharika boarded a plane for New York to attend the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York. He still hasn’t come home.
It didn’t take long for Malawians to notice his not-so-inconspicuous absence from the capital of Lilongwe, where he has served as president since 2014. And now, rumors are swirling that Mutharika, believed to be 76, has not been documented appearing in public since his September speech at the U.N. because he’s gravely ill and seeking medical treatment in the United States.
On Monday, Minister of Information Malison Ndau wrote on the official Malawi government Facebook page that citizens should “IGNORE THE RUMORS; THE PRESIDENT IS FINE” and warned that under Malawi law it is illegal to spread falsehoods about the president’s health.
“Spreading false rumors about the health of the President is a criminal offense and unless this behavior stops forthwith, [the] government will not hesitate to bring to book those responsible for this irresponsible, malicious and damaging rumor-mongering which is clearly aimed at spreading fear and panic among law-abiding Malawians,” he wrote.
It is not abnormal for heads of state or other governmental leaders to extend their U.N. trips for other meetings in Washington that couldn’t be squeezed in during the busy week in New York. But it is also not entirely abnormal for them to seek medical treatment in the U.S. either. Now questions remain about why Mutharika has been gone for quite so long, and why the government has not published video or photo evidence of him in “very robust health,” as he is described in Monday’s statement.
On Monday, Malawians commented on Ndau’s Facebook post demanding answers. “When you are not informing people as to why the president is still not coming back far beyond the activity for which he travelled, you invite such speculations,” one user wrote.
“The million dollar questions haven’t been answered and that makes the whole statement useless,” added another. “The questions are, what is he doing in the US and when is he coming back? What official duties that cannot be mentioned?”
The Embassy of Malawi in Washington, D.C. did not immediately respond to FP’s request for comment.
Many foreign leaders, including aging Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, 73, have quietly sought medical treatment abroad. Earlier this year, Buhari was criticized for seeking treatment for an ear infection in the United Kingdom after he promised to improve Nigerian medical facilities in order to put an end to medical tourism. And in Zimbabwe, the state of 92-year-old President Robert Mugabe’s health is at the heart of much political conversation. As the oldest leader in the world, fears about his health were amplified last year after he tripped and fell deboarding his private plane — video and photos of which were quickly banned from Zimbabwean press. And in September, the entire nation seemed to watch in fear and fascination as opposition lawmakers claimed he had a stroke after he went on a trip whose destination was not publicly disclosed. Mugabe later claimed he was just in Dubai visiting his son.
“Yes, it’s true,” Mugabe told state news reporters when he returned. “I was dead, and I resurrected, as I always do.”
Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images