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Coronavirus: how presidents across Africa are protecting themselves

By Jeune Afrique
Posted on Tuesday, 7 April 2020 14:56

Rwanda's President Paul Kagame attends a memorial service of late former Kenya's President Daniel Arap Moi at the Nyayo Stadium in Nairobi, Kenya February 11, 2020. REUTERS/Njeri Mwangi

As the COVID-19 epidemic spreads on the continent, African heads of state are taking extra precautions to protect themselves from the virus. In presidential palaces, many measures have been taken to ensure their personal safety as well as that of their staff.

Only a select few are permitted to meet with them. So how are people gaining access to presidents?

Paul Biya – Cameroon

The last public appearance made by Cameroon’s president was on 11 March. On that date, he was paid a visit by Peter Henry Barlerin, the US ambassador to Cameroon, at his office in Etoudi Palace.

Unlike the vast majority of other heads of state in the region, Paul Biya did not address his fellow citizens to announce measures to combat the epidemic. Prime minister Joseph Dion Ngute and health minister Malachie Manaouda are regularly informing the public about the health crisis.

Biya’s absence has provoked criticism from the opposition and alarmist rumours about his state of health. However, according to our information, Biya has not tested positive for COVID-19.

To prevent any contamination, he has retreated to his hometown of Mvomeka’a, located 180km to the south of Yaoundé. Shut away in his home, he has prohibited nearly all work-related meetings and only sees a handful of people.

He still speaks to his loyal special adviser, Rear Admiral Joseph Fouda. He also receives the Deputy Chief of Civilian Staff, Samuel Mvondo Ayolo, while Biya’s aide-de-camp, Squadron Leader Mike Davy Ottou, makes himself available. Non-essential staff are no longer allowed to enter his home, which sits atop a hill overlooking the town. The government awaits his instructions to act.

READ MORE: Moving towards a ceasefire in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions

Alassane Ouattara – Côte d’Ivoire

Since the end of March, the Ivorian president splits his time between his residence in Abidjan and his home in Assinie, where he lived in lockdown for several days.

Hippolyte Ebagnitchi, mayor of the seaside resort town, issued an order requiring hotel complexes and recreational facilities to close.

When in Abidjan, the head of state goes to his presidential office each morning, where every room is disinfected. Every official present onsite is required to wear a mask as well as have his or her temperature taken and use hand sanitiser before entry can be permitted.

Alassane Dramane Ouattara, (ADO),  is in continuous contact with Patrick Achi, secretary general of the presidency, as well as with Fidèle Sarassoro, his chief of staff.

Until he tested positive for COVID-19 in early April, defence minister Hamed Bakayoko was also serving as acting prime minister. Prime minister Amadou Gon Coulibaly was in self-quarantine but is now back in his position. Another key contact is Masséré Touré, the president’s chief communications officer.

ADO keeps in touch with government members via email.

Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, he has only made two public appearances: the first was at a national security council meeting on 16 March and the second when he made an address to the nation on 23 March.

READ MORE: Controversies after Côte d’Ivoire imposes coronavirus measures

Félix Tshisekedi – Democratic Republic of Congo

The Cité de l’Union Africaine, which houses the offices of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s head of state as well as those of his prime minister, Sylvestre Ilunga Ilunkamba, are regularly disinfected. Certain staff members working for Félix Tshisekedi or the first lady, Denise Nyakeru, can no longer come in contact with them, unless specifically requested by the presidential couple. All visitors are required to have their temperature taken.

Only Vital Kamerhe, Tshisekedi’s chief of staff, and François Beya, his national security adviser, as well as his personal assistants Michée Mulumba and Lina Muvaro, still have unfettered access. Kamerhe has retreated to his home in N’sele, on the outskirts of Kinshasa, and only leaves to visit the presidential residence.

Tshisekedi is especially cautious given that coronavirus has directly impacted his entourage. His policy adviser Jacques Ilunga passed away from COVID-19 on 27 March and his special adviser, Vidiye Tshimanga, is currently being treated for the disease.

Former President Joseph Kabila is dividing his time between his Kingakati farm and official residence. For him as well, visits have been restricted to a minimum.

Denis Sassou Nguesso – Republic of Congo

After returning to Oyo just a few days earlier, the President of the Republic of the Congo chaired a council of ministers meeting on 27 March in Brazzaville during which all government members, himself included, wore protective masks. All participants were separated by at least one metre.

Meetings at the Palais have been significantly reduced and strict protective measures are in place for Denis Sassou Nguesso (DSN) and his wife, Antoinette Sassou Nguesso.

DSN, who addressed the country on 28 March to announce emergency health measures consisting of a general lockdown and curfew, is managing the crisis in continuous liaison with his chief of staff Florent Ntsiba and prime minister Clément Mouamba, who heads the coronavirus response task force.

As a precaution, DSN’s entourage as well as presidential staff members and security team were all tested for COVID-19 and the results came back negative.

Ali Bongo Ondimba – Gabon

Given that the Gabonese president’s non-essential staff are teleworking, the seaside presidential palace is operating with a reduced onsite staff and using internet-based tools such as Google Meet for meetings, along with WhatsApp and Telegram.

Those who are permitted on the premises must have their temperature taken at the building’s entrance and on the first floor, where the President’s offices are located.

Ali Bongo Ondimba (ABO) still goes to his office on a regular basis, although he has the option of managing his staff’s work remotely from his private residence in the neighbourhood of La Sablière, located in northern Libreville.

In addition to officials taking standard hygiene precautions (frequently disinfecting premises, avoiding physical contact, etc.), which have been in place for several weeks,  council of ministers meetings will only take place “if necessary” and ministers will be seated in accordance with social-distancing guidelines.

ABO recently set up videoconference meetings with prime minister Julien Nkoghe Bekale and his own advisers to ensure the continuity of daily tasks, primarily economic in nature.

Only meetings of less than 10 people that are deemed to be essential continue to take place, with social-distancing guidelines enforced during such meetings.

Alpha Condé – Guinea

Measures implemented at the Sékhoutouréya Palace during the Ebola epidemic (from 2014 to 2016), and which were relaxed afterwards, have been reinforced. Hand sanitiser and temperature checks are standard procedure to gain entry.

In addition, President Alpha Condé, who broadcast a message on television on 26 March announcing the health emergency, the closure of borders and other restrictive measures, no longer shakes hands with the people he comes into contact with.

Secretary general of the presidency Kiridi Bangoura, chief of staff Kalil Kaba, director of protocol Mamady Sinkoun Kaba and the head of state’s personal assistant, Mohamed Lamine Condé, are among the limited group of staff members who have daily contact with Condé. He has also considerably lightened his meeting schedule.

Ibrahim Boubacar Keita – Mali

Mali’s President avoids contact with objects as much as possible. His phones are disinfected several times a day. The same goes for his files prior to being brought to his desk – documents Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (IBK) then proceeds to consult while wearing gloves.

To step up protection against the coronavirus, several measures have been taken at the Koulouba Palace, with most employees now teleworking.

Only about 10 government members are currently being invited to attend council of ministers meetings, depending on the priority issues. All attendees must wash their hands with soap and then hand sanitiser before entering the meeting room.

IBK no longer shakes hands and remains one metre away from others. He only privately meets with his prime minister, Boubou Cissé, and other government members, based on the level of urgency.

Paul Kagame – Rwanda

Rwanda’s President continues to hold in-person meetings (while complying with social distancing guidelines) as well as videoconference meetings.

Prime minister Édouard Ngirente chairs a steering committee tasked with combatting COVID-19. The task force oversees the 24/7 operation of a command centre in Kigali led by health minister Daniel Ngamije, who is monitoring and managing the pandemic response in Rwanda.

READ MORE: Shortages, inflation: East Africa scrambles against coronavirus

Mohamed Ould Ghazouani – Mauritania

While he has not cancelled his meetings, Mauritania’s President has limited participation in such meetings to his inner circle of staff and only where strictly required.

In addition to being required to wear a mask and gloves, visitors must also wash their hands with hand sanitiser, which has been placed in front of the entrance to his office. After the 6 p.m. curfew, Mohamed Ould Ghazouani no longer receives visitors at his office or at “home”, unless absolutely necessary.

However, he continues to chair council of ministers meetings.

READ MORE: Pape Diouf, former manager of Marseille, dies from coronavirus in Senegal

Macky Sall – Senegal

At the presidential palace in Dakar, work hours have been reduced – from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with alternating schedules for those who share an office. While the advisers to Senegal’s President still have access to the palace, their assistants have been sent home.

Work is discussed on WhatsApp, Skype or via email, and most face-to-face meetings have been cancelled. Macky Sall’s few staff members who still have access to the president’s office include his chief of staff, Augustin Tine, the secretary general of the presidency, Mahammed Boun Abdallah Dionne, and the government spokesperson, Seydou Gueye.

Health minister Abdoulaye Diouf Sarr still sometimes meets with the President, although most ministerial meetings are conducted over the phone. Council of ministers meetings are now held via videoconference.

Bottles of hand sanitiser and occasionally even automatic soap dispensers have been placed in the hallways to help prevent contamination via touch.

Temperatures are taken systematically on arrival at the palace and offices are regularly disinfected. In front of each entrance, a sink which turns on by the user’s knee has been set up, as well as hand dryers to avoid hand towels.

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