Thursday, August 18, 2011

Kanshi, What Killed President Mwanawasa?

“As soon as he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate, and his neck was broken and he died, for the man was old and heavy. He had judged Israel forty years” (1 Samuel 4:18).

The late president, Levi Patrick Mwanawasa
Tomorrow will be the 3rd anniversary of the death of our late president, Levy Patrick Mwanawasa. One question I often ask is, “What killed President Mwanawasa?” We all know that since his traffic accident in 1991, his health was never in optimum condition. Thus he earned the name “cabbage” from his political foes—a name which initially angered him but which he later joked about whenever he trumped his opponents.

Let me share with you some thoughts around this question and some lessons that I have learned in answer to my own hypothesis.

Our former president suffered a stroke on 29th June 2008, while attending an African Union meeting in Egypt. And this is the stroke that finally led to his death on 19th August 2008. Despite the assurances we got from the acting president, Rupiah Banda, he never recovered from it. Thus far we are on solid ground. These are well known facts.

Two causes of strokes in human beings
But, what is it that caused this stroke? In my reading on this medical subject, I have learnt that a stroke is caused by shortage of blood going to the brain due to rapture or blockage of a vessel. And one of the causes of such rapture is sudden stress. So, what is it that could have caused President Mwanawasa sudden stress on 29th June 2008?

Again, a little reading around this subject soon revealed that bad news could cause sudden stress, which in turn could lead to a stroke. So, what bad news could President Mwanawasa have received on this date? What major events took place on 29th June 2008? A little investigation soon revealed that this was the date on which President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe was declared winner of their last presidential election. Could this have been such bad news to Mwanawasa as to cause him to have a stroke?

President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe
This question is best answered if we can prove that Mwanawasa had such personal interest in this subject as to be passionate about it. And, I think, the answer is in the affirmative. At the time of his death, Levy Mwanawasa was the chairman of SADC. And as chairman of SADC, Levy had pulled no punches over the Zimbabwean election crisis. He was outspoken about the fact that the elections taking place in Zimbabwe were not free and fair. He had in no uncertain terms told President Robert Mugabe not to go ahead with the second run of elections because of the level of intimidation and violence that the supporters of his main rival, Morgan Tsvagirai, were being subjected to.

When a person is thus emotionally attached to an issue, bad news in that area will have a serious effect on him. Take our celebrated soccer commentator, Dennis Liwewe, as an example. When he heard that the whole Zambian national soccer team had died in a plane crash off the coast of Gabon, he collapsed and was admitted in the Intensive Care Unit of the University Teaching Hospital. We almost lost the man. He almost died. It was not because he was related to any of the players. Rather it was because of his passion for the game of soccer generally and for Zambian soccer in particular.

Dennis Liwewe (not old Eli)
Someone who was less fortunate was old Eli in the Bible. He was a priest in charge of the Tabernacle. At a time when the nation of Israel was in battle with the Philistines, the army decided to take one of the items in the Tabernacle with them into the battlefield—the Ark of the Covenant. They wanted to use it as a kind of lucky charm to help them win the battle. Eli’s emotional attachment to the Ark as it was taken into battle is spelt out in the words, “His heart trembled for the Ark of God” (1 Samuel 4:13).

Unfortunately for him, the Philistines won this battle and carried the Ark of the Covenant with them. We are told that when the news reached Eli, he collapsed. Perhaps he would have still survived the stroke despite a lack of Intensive Care Units in those days, but he fell backwards and, being “old and heavy,” he broke his neck and died. Bad news is very dangerous. It can kill you, especially if your health is already compromised.

Could it be that President Mwanawasa got the news on 29th June 2008 that despite his very strong counsel to Robert Mugabe not to go ahead, he had still been announced as winner of the fraudulent elections and had been sworn in as president of Zimbabwe? Could it be that he was so affected by this bad news that it caused him to get so stressed up that he suffered a stroke? Could it be that it was this stroke that finally led to his death a little more than a month later? I am simply asking, “Could it be?”

The Gabon Disaster coffins laid out during the national day of mourning
If my hypothesis is correct, what can we learn from this? What can we learn from what happened to Patrick Mwanawasa, Dennis Liwewe, and Eli?

To begin with, we would be wrong to say that the lesson is that we must not be passionate about anything. Mwanawasa took his political role very seriously, Liwewe has taken football very seriously, and Eli took the fate of the Ark of God very seriously. That is not wrong. Men and women who were passionate about something have always been the ones who have achieved greatness in human history. Those who are lukewarm about things that really matter in life are the bane of humanity.

Rather, the lesson that we learn from all this is that those of us who are bearers of bad news need to be mindful of the emotional effect our news is likely to have on the people we are going to share it with. We must be mindful that if their health is already compromised, we could actually finish them off. We are carrying acid and should ensure that the vessel we are about to pour it into is well insulated.

The Ark of the Covenant
This is the thinking that took place among Joseph’s brothers in the Bible when Joseph demanded to keep his brother Benjamin from going back with them to their father before he identified himself to his brothers. They appealed saying, “As soon as he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die, and your servants will bring down the grey hairs of your servant our father with sorrow to Sheol” (Genesis 44:31). “We can’t do that,” they said. “This bad news will kill our father.” Let us learn from their wisdom.

The final lesson we learn from all this is that our lives are interconnected. The once famous slogan, “It’s my life; it’s my choice,” is terrible. If you engage in fornication or adultery and catch HIV, your death will affect others. Our lives are interconnected. Our actions affect other people and so we should always factor this into our decisions. God will hold us accountable on the judgment day for the effect our lives had on others. Let us keep this in mind as we remember the death of our beloved former president.


  1. Eli was a priest and he failed to stop or correct his sons from their wicked ways. The "bad-news" was God's way of delivering His judgement upon Eli. When "priests" fail a lot of people suffer, maybe a whole nation.

    We are the priesthood of the new covenant!!!

  2. Your statement on lesson no. 2 regarding breaking of bad news, hit me real hard. It brought sad memories of years long gone, when we, as a family, were faced with the challenge of withholding bad news from an ailing cousin of mine.

    My cousin was in a critical condition when his younger brother who had been unwell passed on. “Unfortunately” for us this ailing cousin kept asking for updates on the wellbeing of her beloved brother. What were we to do?

    Your lesson says, “We must be mindful that if their health is already compromised, we could actually finish them off”
    And that was our major concern; we had almost no doubt, humanly speaking, that bad news would finish off my cousin.

    What were we to do? Were we to lie to her that he was getting better when he was actually dead? Well, sad to say, although I was not the one who directly “updated” my ailing cousin, I share the guilt of the family for I did not object to the proposal that we bend the truth – no bending the truth is an understatement, that we tell a lie to the patient that the brother she loved so much was in a stable condition. And lies being what they are, you almost always need another one to cover up the first one.

    And so days of repeating/modifying this lie tuned into weeks and I would not be surprised if they even turned into a month, for it seemed a long time as far as I can remember. When the patient stabilised and was discharged from the hospital, it was time for us to tell the truth. It was a very difficult moment for us. We did not know how best to do it, but we thought if a number of us could travel to her home on a set date and gather together as we broke the news, it would be better both for us and the patient.

    When the set day came, the husband was given the charge to set the ball rolling, as it were. As he began to pour out both his confession and bad news to his beloved wife, it was very clear that the matter had been a very heavy burden upon his heart so that soon after relieving himself of the heavy load, he broke down in a manner that no one could believe that he was the same army general that we had known him to be. All that were present shared in his sorrow as he kept asking for forgiveness and explaining to his dear wife what a predicament the family had been in which caused the withholding of the truth. Well the good news is, our “insulating” method worked. Much as the patient was deeply affected by the news of the death of her brother, she did not collapse, nor did she die as she had made some progress towards recovery by then. The bad news is we lied.

    When you say, “We are carrying acid and should ensure that the vessel we are about to pour it into is well insulated” I really identified with the statement, for we were carrying real acid that we feared would burn our beloved cousin to death. “We have already lost one loved one, dare we risk losing another in such a short period of time?” were the thoughts that ran through our minds.

    So what were we to do? Pastors, teachers and counsellors, please impart in us knowledge on how to do the “insulating” in a God-honouring way, especially with respect to those that are in their sick beds. And we must be taught real soon for both patients and bad news keep increasing by the day in our generation. We need counsel, lest we continue adding to our many sins in the name of saving the earthly life of a sick loved one. Or is it ok to lie for a good reason? Please help.

  3. Hi Levi,

    Thanks for sharing this heart-rending experience with the readers of my blog. I feel with you on this matter.

    I had really hoped that someone would answer your question instead of me but it looks like everyone is waiting by the side to see who would plunge in first. Let me give you a few pointers.

    The first is to refer you to a very helpful post by one of my favourite bloggers, Tim Challies. The article is called "Sinful Means to a Glorious End", and can be found here (

    He makes the point there (as he deals with a situation that is totally different from what you were dealing with), and I heartily agree with him, that God often uses a sinful act to achieve something good. That does not make that act good. It is still sinful. He refers to a few biblical examples to make that point.

    Let me add to his examples, that of the Egyptian midwives. They lied to Pharaoh about why they did not kill the Israelite babies, yet the Bible says that God blessed them because they feared him (Exodus 1:15-21). How can you say that liars fear God?

    Clearly, it is not because lying is okay IF you lie in order to save your skin. Rather, it is because (at their level of sanctification) they could not kill by obeying human authority but at the same time they could not allow themselves to be killed by telling the truth. What is it that made them treasure life so much? It was the fear of God.

    Putting it another way, lying is always sinful--whether it saves lives or not. We must confess it as sin to God. However, it may be the lesser sin if, in your judgment, telling the truth may lead to the loss of human life. It is in that sense that hiding Jews from Nazis in your loft and denying that they are there could make moral sense!

    So, Levi, you were standing between a rock and a hard place. I am glad I was not in your shoes. No easy choice! The fact that your conscience troubled you shows that you cannot justify lying. It is sinful. Yet, the fact that you still felt a sense of relief that you did not pour acid in a non-insulated container also shows that in the end you were glad you did not unintentionally cause the death of a loved one.

    Well, I have plunged in. We will see if anyone else will do likewise...

  4. Well, I have learnt a number of things. God bless you Pastor Mbewe