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Africa’s ruling dynasties

Africa’s ruling dynasties
  • PublishedJanuary 2, 2018

Never before have ruling dynasties been of more importance as a focus of political analysis around the world than today. As democratic institutions extend themselves from one generation to the next, paradoxically, so too do those privy to the bosom of power and the running of a country. Analysis by Tom Collins.

While ruling dynasties are by no means unique to Africa – with parallels in the likes of the Bush and Kennedy families in the US as well as the Nehrus of India – African dynasties raise important questions about the nature of democracy on the continent, and the kind of governance resulting from a period of dynastic rule.

Currently, “the king is dead, long live the king” is a proverbial phrase which echoes around the state houses of many African countries, as Africa’s grandes familles continue to exert considerable executive influence in DR Congo, Botswana, Gabon, Togo and Kenya.

However, in light of recent events in Zimbabwe and Angola, signs are emerging that the continent’s tolerance for hand-me-down rulers may be waning, and Africa’s strong men are no longer able to keep it within the family.

From father to son

Many of Africa’s ruling dynasties have been established on the back of powerful and often long-serving presidents passing power down through the family.

Citizens of Gabon and Togo have known little other than the rule of the Bongo and the Gnassingbé families, who came to power in 1967, and have ruled over their respective countries ever since.

The DRC tells a slightly different story; the lineage beginning only in 1997 when Mobutu Sese Seko was deposed by Laurent Kabila, who would leave the presidency to his son Joseph Kabila after his assassination in 2001.

As for Kenya and Botswana, the rules of Jomo Kenyatta and Seretse Khama created family names which carried significant political clout, and would later work in favour of the ex-presidents’ sons when running for office.

While Uhuru Kenyatta and Ian Khama have consequently been elected and re-elected in what are largely considered credible elections, Ali Bongo, Joseph Kabila and Faure Gnassingbé’s regimes have been mired in controversy – highlighting different reasons why dynastic rule is mobilised.

Phil Clark, Reader in Comparative and International Politics at SOAS University, London, says: “Many African leaders who have been accused of serious human rights violations are very worried about giving power over to their opponents because they are worried about being prosecuted, and so, ensuring that close family members pick up the mantle is perhaps the only way to ensure long-term security.”

As a result, succession often becomes of extreme importance to leaders considering stepping down, and one solution is the establishment – or proposed establishment – of dynasties.

While Bongo, Kabila and Gnassingbé all came to power after their fathers’ died or were assassinated, the dynasty was used as a way to continue the administration, and to provide a security blanket for its members.

With regards to Uhuru Kenyatta and Ian Khama, the lineage was called upon as a way to substantiate political legitimacy, and to activate old networks in order to win votes.

In such a manner, dynasties can be mobilised in a number of different ways, and will lead to differing forms of governance.

Characteristics of rule 

Governance changes on a case-by-case basis, but there are some commonalities that hold true for most dynastic politicians.

According to Gianmarco Daniele, a post-doctoral researcher of dynasties at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, dynastic politicians are much more effective at mobilising resources, and are much more likely to win elections compared to non-dynastic candidates.

Clark argues a similar point, saying that by growing up in the trappings of power, dynastic politicians have an immediate network of resources and contacts at their disposal, and are also instantly recognisable to the public.

“When these individuals rise to the level of the presidency, there is a sense that the population know what they are getting, which might be in stark contrast to opposition leaders who come out of the blue, where the population has to work out what they are, what drives them,” he says.

By virtue of their background, politicians can mobilise their name and resources either to win an election, unite a party, or continue an administration.

Interestingly, however, although dynastic politicians can mobilise more resources, and often spend more money, their effect on governance is no different from that of their non-dynastic counter-parts.

“It is not useful for the population but for their political careers because in terms of governance outcome, there is no difference,” says Daniele.

Moreover, power self-perpetuates such that a politician who has been in office is much more likely to set up a dynasty in the future.

“If you take two presidential candidates, and one wins with a very slight margin over the other, the one that gets into office is much more likely to set up a future dynasty,” continues Daniele.

Lastly, dynasties lend themselves not just to inherited executive takeover, but also an expansive family network, which often assumes tertiary government and business roles.

The Kabilas have built a huge family business empire in DRC, and reportedly have a stake in banks, farms, airline operators, hotels, pharmaceutical supplies, travel agencies, boutiques and nightclubs, according to Bloomberg news agency.

Many members of the Kabila family are equally in positions of power within government, and DRC’s situation holds true for a large swathe of political dynasties in Africa, and throughout the world.

Another, perhaps more extreme example of keeping power (and wealth) in the family is that of the ruling family in Equatorial Guinea. Francisco Macías Nguema was elected president of the small West African country in 1968 and was deposed through a bloody coup by his nephew Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in 1979. Obiang Nguema has ruled ever since. In 2016, he promoted his son Teodorin Obiang to the post of first vice-president and clear successor. In October this year, Teodorin Obiang was found guilty of embezzlement by French investigators and sentenced to three years in prison, with a fine of $34.78m and the confiscation of more than €100m of his assets in France. The assets included luxury cars and expensive real estate.

Equatorial Guinea is the third largest oil producer in Africa and, given its tiny population, has the highest per capita income in Africa, but on the global Human Development Index is ranked 135 out of 188.

Family feuds 

Whereas power self-perpetuates in an executive fashion, the continent also throws up two interesting examples of how power self-perpetuates in terms of the opposition.

In the run-up to this year’s Kenya elections, the main narrative arising from the media was one of a family feud – the Kenyattas pitted historically and actually against the Odingas.

Indeed, Jaramogi Odinga, Raila Odinga’s father, had been a leading Kenyan opposition leader against Jomo Kenyatta, Uhuru Kenyatta’s father, and Jaramogi Odinga was famously arrested and sidelined politically after a public spat with Jomo Kenyatta while he was in office in 1969.

“So much of the antipathy between Uhuru and Odinga is an inheritance of the antagonisms of their father and this gets passed down from generation to generation,” says Clark. (See also “Old enemies in new battle”, New African, July 2017.)

In a similar vein, the Tshisekedi family in DRC has fronted the main Congolese opposition parties since Congolese independence.

Étienne Tschisekedi formed Congo’s first opposition party after falling out with Mobutu, and continued to lead the party until his death this year, at which point his son, Felix Tshisekedi took up the mantle.

Therefore, dynasties on the sidelines of government operate in much the same way as those in power.

Democracy’s uninvited guest? 

Although dynastic politicians may be useful in providing stability and leveraging resources in certain circumstances, their increasing prevalence throughout the world raises some uneasy questions about the efficacy of democracy as a power-sharing tool in general.

If the same family or families monopolise power from generation to generation, then democracy starts to look more like a monarchy or oligarchy, than a fair and equitable political system.

Talking about dynastic politicians in Africa, Clark says: “You’re talking about sons who have grown up in the presidential palace, who know very little other than being close to power and how power works, and who are by definition different from the masses. They are able to use their privileged position to hold on to that power, so I think the impact of dynastic politicians is very difficult to square with democracy.”

“It would be difficult to point to African states with these forms of dynasties, that have experienced responsive governance and have been peaceful and stable in the long term,” he continues.

In this sense, a recycled political class is able to amass huge amounts of wealth, as well as power in a country’s central institutions, which by definition works against the idea of democracy as a way to level the playing field.

Changes afoot 

A number of developments in Angola and Zimbabwe are beginning to suggest that dynastic takeovers, like Faure Gnassingbé’s in 2005 and Ali Bongo’s in 2009, are no longer acceptable.

Prior to Angola’s election this year, many suspected that Angola’s former president, José Eduardo dos Santos, who had ruled for 38 years, would nominate his daughter or son to succeed him – both to avoid prosecution from claims of corruption and human rights abuses, and to continue to exert influence within the country.

Yet, to the surprise of many, Dos Santos handpicked João Lourenço, the former Minister of Defence, to succeed him as leader of the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) party and in the 23 August legislative elections he became president.

This confounded analysts due to the fact that Lourenço and Dos Santos are not bedfellows, and as Lourenço has quickly started stripping back Dos Santos’s power by firing his daughter Isabel
dos Santos from Sonangol, Angola’s national oil company, Dos Santos’ move still remains a mystery.

What it does suggest is that the power of Angola’s MPLA party is strong and that moves were made within the party and the country to force Dos Santos’ hand – to prevent him from establishing a dynasty.

This situation is remarkably similar to Zimbabwe, where Zanu-PF party members were dissatisfied with Mugabe’s manoeuvring to line up his wife Grace Mugabe for the presidency, and reacted by forcing the now ex-president to resign.

The dynasty was again prevented by the government’s institutions outweighing the power of the presidency, and while little is known as yet about what results Emmerson Mnangagwa, the new Zimbabwean president, and Lourenço will achieve, the fact they were used to block the continuation of a dynasty should be well noted.

These events are undoubtedly a cause for concern for many of Africa’s ageing leaders, looking on amid popular protests, embroiled in succession crises of their own.

In South Africa, Zuma is attempting to make his ex-wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, leader of the party at the ANC’s annual conference – a move predicated on his desire to escape prosecution after being accused of corruption.

However, the wave of public discontent and party grumblings grows ever louder, and events in neighbouring Zimbabwe may be a bad omen for Zuma’s strategy.

Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni was suspected for a long time to be priming his eldest son or his wife for the presidency, yet for now, Museveni is pushing to extend the constitutional age limit so he can run for another term.

The president’s proposals have been met with televised brawls in the Ugandan parliament and countrywide mass protests.

In Togo, Gnassingbé’s succession is unclear, and huge protests have erupted around the country, as many suspect he is looking to change the constitution to stay in power.

Joesph Kabila, similarly, faces mass protests after setting the election back one year, citing electoral issues. It remains to be seen how he will handle the December 2018 polls, and whether or not he will try to extend the constitution or name a successor.

In view of continent-wide protests against constitutional amendments, two effective sackings of heads of state, and a growing distaste for inherited rule, it seems the case for dynastic rule, which
has propagated itself in so many African countries over the years, may gradually be falling on deaf ears. NA

Written By
Tom Collins

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