Political power is being passed down through families across sub-Saharan Africa, with dynasties increasingly becoming the new instrument to acquire huge wealth and influence government affairs.

Ruling elites across the continent appear to have ditched slogan-chanting party loyalists and wartime comrades in favour of their wives, sons, daughters, siblings and in-laws taking up leadership positions. Often, the responsibility of the family members is to safeguard the elite’s political and economic interests and, most importantly, the extension of their rule.

To retain power, it seems blood is thicker than water, and Africa’s rulers would rather place their fates in the hands of relatives than their liberation struggle comrades.

While this may make Africa’s rulers sleep easy at night, questions persist about nepotism’s effect on good governance.

A major concern among political analysts is whether citizens are the biggest losers of dynastic rule as they face the prospect of extended rule long after an incumbent leader steps off the political stage.

Jeffrey Smith, executive director of nonprofit organisation Vanguard Africa, says the centralisation of power within dynasties has a profoundly negative effect on the state of democracy in Africa. "What we have today in many instances are family fiefdoms in which the control of state power, and the massive unprecedented looting that often accompanies it, is impoverishing the very citizens these leaders have sworn to protect," he says.

Leaders in SA, Zimbabwe, Angola, Uganda, Equatorial Guinea and Liberia are in the spotlight. Their relatives hold senior positions in government or use of their proximity to the incumbent to wield influence over government affairs.

The intricate web of influence wielded by President Jacob Zuma’s son Duduzane Zuma has been laid bare by the Gupta e-mail leaks. They show Duduzane has wide-ranging involvement in government affairs, including the appointment of cabinet ministers and securing billions of rand in government contracts for his business associates.

Zuma’s former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, is being tipped by the president to replace him as leader of the ANC in December. Should she win, she is expected to continue weakening the justice system’s attempt to bring more than 700 corruption and fraud charges against him.

In Zimbabwe, there has been a "bedroom coup" as Grace Mugabe’s political clout grows while the health of President Robert Mugabe deteriorates.

The couple’s daughter, Bona Mugabe, has begun to play a central role in state affairs. In May, she was given a seat on the boards of the Censorship Board and the Empowerment Bank, a yet to be established state-owned bank. Her husband, Simbarashe Chikore, was appointed chief operating officer of Air Zimbabwe in 2016.

Institute of Security Studies peace and security research programme head Stephanie Wolters says there is often a "lack of transparency" about why several politicians’ relatives are involved in politics. "Most African rulers are anointing their children to be their successors. It could be that the first generation of the family enriched themselves so much such that they stand to lose much in a power transition," she says.

In Angola, Isabel dos Santos, Africa’s richest woman and daughter of incumbent leader Jose Eduardo dos Santos, was appointed head of the national oil company, Sonangol a year ago. Her younger brother, Jose Filomeno de Sousa dos Santos, has headed the country’s $5bn sovereign wealth fund, the Fundo Soberano de Angola, since he was appointed to the position by his father in 2012.

Verisk Maplecroft, a global risk advisory firm, says Isabel’s appointment at Sonangol triggered speculation that she was first in line to succeed her father, although low oil prices have now left his plans for dynastic rule vulnerable.

"Dos Santos’s grip on power has hinged upon oil wealth and its distribution among the ruling elite. The decline in oil revenues therefore corrodes his ability to retain state control and eventually pass it to his chosen heir," the firm says.

In Uganda, long-time ruler Yoweri Museveni’s wife, Janet Museveni, is education minister — a portfolio that usually takes the largest chunk of the country’s annual budget.

In January, Museveni appointed his son, Maj-Gen Muhoozi Kainerugaba, as his special adviser, stoking speculation that he is being groomed for higher political office.

International Crisis Group Southern Africa director Piers Pigou says the dominance of certain political families at the apex of politics is not unique to postcolonial states.

"Political aristocracy can be found in the most mature of democracies. The composition, retention and replication of elite interests vary from polity to polity, influenced by a range of variables that will reflect the depth of democratic values and practices, the robustness of institutions, policies and notions of accountability," he says.

In Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has also set up his sons for high office and wealth. Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, commonly known as "Teodorin", is vice-president. Teodorin leads a lavish lifestyle and had more than $30m in assets allegedly purchased with embezzled funds. Some of it was seized by US authorities in 2014.

Gabriel Mbaga Obiang Lima is another Obiang son and is the minister of mines, industry and energy. He arranges all oil concessions for the country. Lima is nicknamed the "lord and master" of Equatorial Guinea’s oil industry.

Last week, on the sidelines of the Africa Oil & Power conference held in Cape Town, ExxonMobil signed a production-sharing contract for Block EG-11 with Equatorial Guinea, which is adjacent to the company’s operations at the Zafiro oilfield. Lima says the relationship with ExxonMobil has "transformed" Equatorial Guinea.

In Liberia, the continent’s first female president and Nobel peace prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has also played dynasty politics. Her son Charles Sirleaf was appointed interim governor of the central bank in 2016. Another son, Robert Sirleaf, was appointed to head the National Oil Company of Liberia. However, he was forced to resign in 2013 after heavy criticism from Liberian citizens and in 2014, he lost his bid for a seat in the Senate.

In some countries, it appears that a leadership position in politics is a birthright; a single family dominates the political landscape until the family name becomes synonymous with the country.

Botswana, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gabon, Togo and Mauritius have all had father-and-son rule.

In Malawi, the Mutharika brothers have ruled consecutively. After the death in 2015 of Bingu wa Mutharika, Peter Mutharika won the election and became president.

In Botswana, Ian Khama won the elections in 2008, 27 years after the rule of his father, Seretse Khama. His brother, Tshekedi Khama, is the minister of tourism.

In Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta became president 34 years after his father, Jomo Kenyatta. He is now seeking a second term in office in the August elections.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, Joseph Kabila took over in 2001 after the assassination of his father, Laurent-Desiree Kabila. The family owns 70 companies in the country, according to Bloomberg.

In Gabon, Ali Bongo rules after the death of his father, Omar Bongo, in 2009.

In January Pravind Jugnauth took over as prime minister of Mauritius from his father, Anerood Jugnauth, who stepped down, citing the need for "younger leadership".

President Faure Gnassingbé of Togo is the son and immediate successor of Togo’s fifth president, Gnassingbé Eyadema.

The Gnassingbé family has run Togo for 48 years of its 55-year postindependence history, says Vera Songwe, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Global Economy and Development programme and Africa Growth Initiative. "Gabon has a similar experience with a father and son at the head of the country for over 86% of the country’s post-independence history … 47 out of almost 55 years and the son is still in power," she says.

But the rise of political family dynasties appears to be a global phenomenon and not only an African problem.

Prof Mahmood Mamdani of Makerere University says this tendency develops in many newly independent countries.

"Think of the Nehru dynasty in India and the Bhutto dynasty in Pakistan. So far, these dynasties have been undermined either by popular mobilisations or by military coups," he says.

"We can also see the tendency to family dynasties in more developed countries such as the US. Just think of the Clinton [and] Bush families and of the speed with which the Trump family has huddled into the White House. It points to the growing role of corruption and dysfunction of the political system."

In Africa, many years of families being in power and amassing wealth appears to have emboldened ruling elites. The words of defiance by France’s Louis the XIV, "L’état, c’est moi", which translates into "the state is me", seem apt.


Please sign in or register to comment.