With his arrest last week, Dr. Kizza Besigye joined a growing list of African politicians incarcerated because they declared themselves the duly elected presidents of their countries.
Nigeria’s Moshood Kashimawo Olawale Abiola declared himself president in 1994 after Gen. Ibrahim Babangida had annulled the results of the 1993 elections. Abiola was incarcerated for four years and died on the day he was supposed to be released from prison.
Congo Free State’s Etienne Tshisekedi wa Mulumba declared himself president in 2011 after the electoral commission declared Joseph Kabila Kabange the winner. Most local and international observers had declared the elections “flawed.”
Tshisekedi was “sworn in”, prompting his illegal house arrest for two years. In 2014, the Kabila government sent him for medical treatment in Belgium where he continues to live.
These self-declared presidencies will continue to be a feature of African politics as long as we remain firmly stuck in the ancient days of hereditary chieftaincy.
Once in office, most African politicians and their supporters see theirs as a divinely ordained right to remain in power. The idea that a ruler can be removed simply because his subjects have tired of him becomes very foreign and treasonable.
The ruler is expected to continue until he is succeeded by his anointed successor, usually from his own family. Any outsider that thinks of upsetting the arrangement commits treason.
Political dynasties are not unique to Africa. We have seen them in places like Syria, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Singapore, Argentina, USA and Canada. Name recognition, patronage networks and easy access to funding assist the political heirs to victory in what are often genuine political competitions. Syria’s Assad Dynasty is an obvious exception, with no pretence of democracy.
On the other hand, the emerging trend in Africa takes dynastic politics back to the traditional pre-colonial practice of hereditary chieftaincy. The chief passes power to the son.
Examples of such direct dynastic presidential chieftaincies can be found in Equatorial Guinea (the Nguemas), Togo (the Gnassingbes), Gabon (Bongos) and Congo Free State (Kabilas).
In Equatorial Guinea, the certifiably psychotic Francisco Macias Nguema Biyogo, ruler from 1968, was executed by his nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo in 1979. The latter remains on the throne. His son, Teodoro Nguema Obiang Mangue, is the Second Vice-President of Equatorial Guinea.
In Togo, Gnassingbe Eyadema, ruler for 38 years, was succeeded upon his death in 2005 by his son Faure Gnassingbe.
In Gabon, Omar Bongo Ondimba, ruler for nearly 42 years, was succeeded upon his death in 2009 by his son Ali Bongo Ondimba.
In Congo Free State, Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Zabanga had hoped to be succeeded by his son Kongolo. Their dynastic-plans were violently disrupted in Mobutu’s 32nd year on the throne when Laurent Desire Kabila, aided by Ugandan and Rwandan troops, overthrew the Zairean dictator.
When Kabila’s rule was cut short by an assassin’s bullet in 2001, he was succeeded by his son Kabange, who remains on the throne more than 15 years later.
After failed efforts to change the constitution to enable him to continue on the throne, Kabila has devised other ways of circumventing the constitutional nuisance. The Supreme Court ruled last week that he could legally remain president if elections were not held in November 2016.
We already have a clue what Kabila will do. Moise Katumbi Chapwe, a serious presidential hopeful from Katanga Province, has been charged with plotting to overthrow the government.
However, should Kabila call it quits, he will likely front either Olive Kabila Lembe, his wife, or Jaynet Kabila Kyungu, his twin sister. Another potential successor under consideration is Zoe Kabila Mwanza Mbala, the president’s brother. The two siblings are members of the Congolese parliament.
Further south in Angola, President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos, who recently announced (again) that he will call it quits in 2018 (after 39 years in power), is very likely to be succeeded by his son José Filomeno de Sousa dos Santos. The heir to the Dos Santos Dynasty is currently the Chairman of the country’s multi-billion dollar Fundo Soberano de Angola (sovereign wealth fund.) The president’s other children are very wealthy people, including a billionaire daughter who is considered to be the wealthiest woman in Africa.
Ruling houses do not have a monopoly on dynastic politics. A few opposition leaders pass the batons to their children. For example, Congo’s Tshisekedi, now 83, has anointed his son Felix as his political successor.
The Uganda People’s Congress (UPC), led by Apollo Milton Obote from its founding in 1960, was personal to him until his death in exile in 2005. Miria Kalule Obote, his wife of 42 years who had hitherto not participated in active political leadership, was the natural successor.
When Miria tired of the role, an attempt was made to hand the party to Jimmy Akena Obote, the party founder’s son.
Akena’s defeat by Olara Otunnu was an inconvenience that was fought hard until the Obotes reclaimed the party’s throne. Well, sort of, for it is unclear to me who the actual leader of UPC is.
Likewise, the National Resistance Movement (NRM) is personal to Yoweri K. Museveni, the party’s founding ruler, as former Prime Minister Amama Mbabazi discovered when he attempted to exercise his democratic rights. The most likely successor to Museveni will be a family member, perhaps his wife Janet or his son Maj. Gen. Muhoozi Kainerugaba.
Such personalization of politics does not tolerate democratic competition. The incumbent ruler will do everything legal and illegal to retain power. “Elections” become an exercise in futility.
Uganda has just gone through another self-immolation of pretense at presidential “elections” whose results we knew long before the official campaign began.
This was the sixth such exercise since independence in 1962. The “elections,” mere rituals in fulfillment of some imported concept, would not matter if they did not cost a lot in cash, emotions, social relationships, lives and lost productivity.
Millions of dollars lost through violent destruction of property, added to millions spent on buying votes, teargasing and shooting the stubborn ones, and conducting sham presidential “elections” have left us cash-poorer.
The latest “election” has probably been the most expensive in Uganda’s history. Besides the direct spending by the Electoral Commission, reportedly Sh. 1.2 trillion (about $360 million), various state agencies emptied their coffers to ensure the president’s continued hold on to power.
Museveni himself spent over $7 million on an exercise with a predetermined outcome. The other presidential candidates spent about $2 million. Add to that the millions of dollars spent on last week’s presidential swearing-in and you have a bill that comes close to $1 billion.
And how much in dollar terms can we attach to the bloodshed in what passed for political campaigns? What about lost productivity all in the name of a pretend “election?” The cost would have been bearable if the outcome had been uncertain.
The fact is that like many of their brethren elsewhere on the continent, Uganda’s rulers do not subscribe to western democracy at all. They also do not subscribe to eastern (Chinese) style internal party “democracy” where top leadership changes occur on a regular basis.
Instead they adhere to traditional non-democratic chieftaincies that do not allow any challenge. The extreme violence they use to retain power suggests that this is not about to change soon.
The politicians are not alone in this practice. After all, the rigging and violence are carried out by their subjects. It is a widespread culture of intolerance of dissent and difference.
Examine the history of leadership challenge in all the major political parties in Uganda and you discover a sobering fact. With only one exception, the very act of challenging the party leader has been met with hostility, as though the challenger was a spoiler. In some parties, the challenger was declared a mole sent by the country’s ruler to “disorganize the party.” Why else would anyone want to “spoil things” for the incumbent leader?
Whereas I am a democrat through and through, I am a realist who recognizes that we have a very long way to go before there is a cultural shift that embraces genuine democracy as a way of life.
Ugandans should seriously consider abolishing these pretend-“elections” and allow Museveni to rule for life. After all, five years from now, we shall have a repeat performance of 2016. He is going nowhere voluntarily.
It would save us the waste of human lives and blood, public resources, emotions, social relations and time that are squandered in the pursuit of this democracy mirage.
The problem, of course, is that without hope for peaceful change, the risk of violent resistance escalates. This is partly what drove Museveni himself to the bush in 1981. Uganda is in a Catch-22 situation.
Notwithstanding this risk, our urgent business is to engage in civic education about democracy and to build a culture that will take years to yield fruit. Change will come.
In the short-term, without the electoral threat that mortifies him, perhaps a Life President Museveni might shift the patronage and campaign funds to improving the conditions in which his subjects live. It is the perfect African solution to an African problem.