Democratic transition in Africa offers much to celebrate. For one thing, support for democratic principles, especially among young people, remains robust. Contra creeping anti-democratic sentiment across the West (for instance, research by UK-based think tank Onward found that “60% of 18- to 24-year-olds agree that having a strong leader who does not have to bother with parliament or elections is a good way to run the country, more than double the number in 2017”), a high percentage of young Africans continue to express strong support for core democratic values, including freedom of belief and universal suffrage.
At the same time, and notwithstanding the recent flurry of coups d’état in the West African sub-region, the general trend is of an increasing discontent with the usual “Big Man” politics, leading to a noticeable emboldening of legal institutions and subsequent strengthening of civil society. The gains may be quite modest across board, but a different perspective emerges once they are measured against the situation in many of these countries at the apparent close of the military era in the final decade of the twentieth century, and the enduring political and cultural pressures against democratization across Africa.
At the heart of these pressures is the question of political succession, especially the obvious reluctance of the old guard to surrender executive power and its attendant privileges. Insofar as the transfer of power from one political leader to another (or, depending on the situation, from one elite coalition to another) is an essential property of liberal democracy, the emerging situation in a number of African countries where various incumbents appear to be grooming their sons as their immediate successors—Uganda, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, the Republic of Congo, and Eritrea—amounts to a brazen disclaimer.
In Uganda, where seventy-eight-year-old Yoweri Museveni has ruled the roost since 1986, the expectation is that he will be succeeded by his son, forty-eight-year-old Army General Muhoozi Kainerugaba. It is not clear whether Museveni, who controversially won re-election for an unprecedented sixth term of five years in January 2021, will run for another term in 2026. In the meantime, Museveni continues to make life miserable for the political opposition and civil society more broadly. Early this year, satirical novelist Kakwenza Rukirabashaija was illegally detained and apparently tortured following a series of tweets including one in which he called Museveni a thief and his son “an incompetent pig-headed curmudgeon.” Opposition figure Kyagulanyi Ssentamu, aka “Bobi Wine,” who came second in the January 2021 presidential election was placed under house arrest for challenging the fairness of the vote. Last year, children as young as fifteen were held in prison for months as part of a crackdown on opposition activists by Ugandan security services.
The same sequence is playing out in Republic of Congo, where Denis-Christel Sassou Nguesso, forty-seven, is seen as the successor to his seventy-nine-year-old father, Denis Sassou Nguesso, Congolese president from 1979 to 1992, and subsequently since 2002. Member of the Congolese National Assembly (where his father’s Congolese Labour Party, PCT, holds an absolute majority) since 2012, the younger Nguesso has been accused of involvement in illegal enrichment schemes running into tens of millions of dollars. He continues to deny the accusations, which do not appear to have had any impact on his father’s succession plan.
The son is also rising in Equatorial Guinea, where Teodoro “Teodorin” Nguema Obiang Mangue, fifty-four, is apparently being groomed to succeed his eighty-year-old father, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the country’s president since 1979. The younger Nguema’s accession would make him the third successive Nguema to occupy the presidential palace in Malabo. The incumbent seized power in 1979 after overthrowing his uncle, Macias Nguema, in a bloody military coup d’etat.
Franck Biya, fifty-one, eldest son of eighty-nine-year-old Paul Biya, Cameroonian leader since 1982, and Abraham Isaias Afwerki, thirty-seven, eldest son of seventy-six-year-old Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki, complete the list of African political heirs apparent. While Biya junior has never held any political office, he enjoys fervent adulation among the “Franckists,” as his loyalists are called, who claim that Franck is “a providential man with a divine destiny.”
On one level, none of this is particularly new. Leaders scheming to install trustworthy loyalists, and for a variety of reasons at that, is politically par for the course, and to that extent, none of the African leaders under the spotlight here are sowing on uncultivated land. Nor are kin- or family-based based politics necessarily antithetical to liberal democratic politics, as we have seen with numerous examples across the advanced democracies, particularly the United States. Furthermore, sons (instructively, never daughters) inheriting their fathers’ mantle is not uncommon in Africa, as we have seen with the examples of Faure Gnassingbe in Togo, Mahamat Deby in Chad, Joseph Kabila in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Felix Tshisekedi, also in the DRC, elected to lead the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS) following his father's passing in 2017.
Nevertheless, the issue here goes beyond mere succession; at stake is self-succession, an ego-propelled quest for political immortality for which the practitioners appear to be willing to sacrifice the system itself. This explains the common thread among the leaders of the five countries highlighted here of entrenched personal rule fused with an exaggerated sense of amour propre. Apart from stultifying democratic institutions, such personalization of power incentivizes corruption, a common pattern across the five countries. Furthermore, its unavoidable reliance on patronage to divide “friends” from “enemies” deepens political rancor.
But it is not only in these countries, or in Africa generally, that monumental egotism threatens democratic stability. Much contemporary American political angst derives from the crisis stoked by the fact-averse delusions of former President Donald Trump.
Invariably, the God complex is more damaging, and potentially fatal, in contexts like the five identified countries where political and civic institutions remain relatively weak, ironically because of prolonged personal rule. More importantly, the longer it continues, the greater the unlikelihood of a peaceful transfer of power.
For now, observers may take solace in the realization that the unfolding reality in the five countries is, as demonstrated earlier, at variance with the prevailing trend in Africa; yet the fact that success for self-succession may easily trigger a contagion effect should suffice to put watchers of democratic transition in the region on the alert.
In the long term, policy intervention must aim at bolstering alternative centers of power, not only in the identified countries, but across the region at large.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.