The past few months have not been comforting for advocates of dynastic succession in Africa. In Togo and Gabon, favorite sons have become focal points for popular frustration.
Togo’s Gnassingbé Eyadema led the country from 1967 until his death in 2005. His son, Faure Gnassingbé, was promptly installed as president, and was since been victorious in three deeply flawed elections. Togolese citizens have been vociferously demanding democratic reforms and insisting on term limits that would apply retroactively, effectively ending Faure’s tenure in 2020. They have been met with sometimes violent repression that has alarmed the region.
Togo’s December parliamentary elections did little to improve the country’s prospects. The opposition largely boycotted the exercise, insisting on key reforms to the electoral commission and process before participating. The resulting predictable victory for the ruling party is unlikely to be understood as a definitive decision about the country’s future, and unlikely to quell popular demands for change. Gabon’s future is equally uncertain, though for different reasons. Omar Bongo led Gabon for over 40 years. When he died in 2009, his son Ali was declared the winner in disputed presidential elections, and re-elected in another flawed election in 2016.
Last October Ali Bongo suffered a suspected stroke while in Saudi Arabia, and while his government insists that he is recovering in Morocco, he has not yet returned to the country he purportedly leads. Widespread confusion about who is really making decisions, uncertainty about when the newly elected National Assembly and a new cabinet will begin work, and political maneuvers that appear designed to evade the constitutional requirement that an incapacitated President be replaced through a special election do not inspire confidence domestically or abroad. A tight inner circle of Bongo loyalists (unsurprisingly featuring some family members) appear to hold the real levers of power for now, but as the failed coup attempt on January 7 illustrates, it will be difficult to maintain stability with provisional and ad hoc measures indefinitely.
As measures these long-ruling families have taken to cling to power become increasingly extreme, they invite resentment and resistance from citizens whose everyday concerns predispose them to reject the air of entitlement that surrounds their leaders. On a continent where calls for generational change have real political potency, installing junior in office is rarely a satisfying response.