Freetown — Sierra Leone's President Julius Maada Bio finally returned home on Saturday, three weeks after he left the country and eliciting talk about his health.
Bio left Freetown on August 27 for what the presidency said was a private visit to Lebanon, which was scheduled to last for one week. But even before he departed, reports emerged that he was undergoing treatment for an undisclosed illness.
Shortly before President Bio arrived in Beirut, reports emerged in the Lebanese capital that he would be air-ambulanced out of Lungi International Airport for Covid-19 treatment. That report by a major Lebanese TV station, MTV, cited unidentified sources saying that the Sierra Leonean president was being awaited by the Lebanese Red Cross to be transferred to the American University of Beirut Medical Centre.
Days later, the government issued a short statement through its consul in Beirut saying that the president was, indeed, checking into a hospital but only for a "routine" medical check-up.
It added that Mr Bio would be examined by a former Lebanese Health minister. The consul would later issue a second statement saying that Mr Bio had undergone a "necessary" medical examination and was to stay in a hotel for a "short recovery" before continuing with his private visit.
One week later, Presidential Spokesman Yusuf Keketoma Sandi posted a brief comment on Facebook saying the president and his wife had extended their stay in Lebanon.
Sierra Leonean media went wild with the speculation, amidst condemnation of the secrecy around the president's health.
On Saturday, photos and a video released by the presidency showed a masked President Bio being hailed by a fairly large crowd of party supporters as he disembarked from a small plane at Lungi Airport.
He was quickly ushered into the presidential lounge before being driven to Freetown.
A former military head of state who came to power as a civilian in the 2018 General Election, Bio has been heavily criticised for his frequent travels abroad since becoming president. But this is one of two visits which have generated the most public debate, given the suspicion they raised over his health status.
But it's not the first time his health has generated such public attention.
In 2019, he embarked on a visit which the government said was supposed to be a holiday in Kenya, but which also sparked speculation about his health and whereabouts.
This latest one was made more interesting, thanks to his prolonged stay out of the country, which further fuelled even wilder speculation.
There was a rumour that he had died while another one claimed that he had been amputated.
First Lady Fatima Bio added impetus to the drama-filled three weeks with her daily social media posts condemning the president's opponents for wishing him bad things.
But one of her posts that got everyone talking was a picture of her and her husband sightseeing. She commented that they were on honeymoon.
Critics slammed her as insensitive to the plight of Sierra Leoneans battling Covid-19 and its attendant social and economic effects.
The opposition lamented that he was missing in action as the country battled the pandemic.
Over 48 hours since the president arrived, there has been no word from the government about the reason for his prolonged stay in Lebanon.