When renowned American historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote about the imperial presidency in 1973, he was motivated by two main concerns. First, that the US presidency was out of control, and second, that the presidency had exceeded its constitutional limits. As a general principle, Professor Schlesinger Jr. theorized that a presidency is said to be imperial when it increasingly relies on powers beyond those allowed by the constitution.
Patent disregard for the Constitution has always been the hallmark of Africa’s imperial presidencies. Most of Africa’s leaders have generally been known to conduct themselves as medieval emperors, who act with little regard for other branches of government and who seem to be guided by the notion that the president is above the law and what he orders is law. So the imperial president governs by deceit, secrecy and manipulation. He changes the constitution when he like and since he considers himself more as an emperor than a leader holding an elective office, he handpicks his successor and device ways of perpetuating his reign.
Under the one party state the perpetuation of the one-man imperial presidency was fairly easy. Simply put it worked rather well, especially in the francophone countries of Sub Saharan Africa (Cameroon, Gabon, Cote d’Ivoire, Zaire, Congo Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, Togo etc). The advent of multi-party democracy in the 1990s (which was literally forced onto some of the leaders of these countries) came with a reversal of fortunes. For once the “old imperial guards” were facing open scrutiny from an emerging vibrant private and independent press, while nascent political opposition and civil society advocacy groups were openly contesting their legitimacy.
How these imperial presidents managed to survive the political thunder-storms of the 90s and in some cases emerged from them stronger and better is in itself an interesting case study in political maneuvering. But their efforts at political survival ushered into the African political landscape a new dimension to the perpetuation of the imperial presidency: the chosen sons.
Before the 1990s, it was rare to find direct family members of sitting heads of states playing any public role in the management of state affairs. This would soon change with the advent of multi-party politics where trust and loyalty were to become scarce commodities in the continent’s murky political market place. So the embattled heads of state turned to their most trusted allies: their immediate families, and more especially their sons. Africa’s chosen sons are now everywhere, occupying strategic positions in their father’s governments and generally carrying themselves around as heir-apparents.
In the Central African Republic (home of the late unlamented Emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa) Francis Bozize, one of the numerous sons of President Francois Bozize serves as Defense Minister. And for good measure, the president’s sister is Minister of Water, Fisheries and Forest. Right next door in Congo Brazzaville, Denis Christel Sassou Ngeusso (known for his spending extravaganzas) and son of President Denis Sassou Ngeusso, heads the strategic oil marketing company, COTRADE. In the nearby Equatorial Guinea, Teodorin Ngeuma Obiang is Minister of Agriculture in his father’s government. According to published accounts, this heir-apparent earns 3000-4000$ US a month but recently bought a 35 million USD home in Malibu. In Tchad, Brahim Derby, son of President Idriss Derby was known to be of a violent temperament and abusive of his father’s opponents. He was widely regarded as his father’s successor until he was assassinated in July 2007. Charles McAuthur Emmanuel, son of Liberian warlord Charles Taylor, was also known for his violent disposition. He was in charge of the dreaded “Demon Forces” known to have routinely beheaded his father’s political rivals and opponents.
Some African heads of state are no longer contented with just placing their chosen sons in strategic positions in government. They groom them to effectively succeed them. In Togo and most recently in Gabon, the chosen sons have effectively succeeded their late fathers after highly contested constitutional maneuvers and/or sham elections. In Egypt and Libya the chosen sons are already known to be presidents-in-waiting.
Yes, this is the added dimension to Africa’s imperial presidency. When African heads of state are not changing the constitution to prolong their stay in power, they are scheming to impose their sons on a helpless and hapless populace. By forcing onto their populations a governing hegemony based on family and kinship ties these leaders are effectively undermining the rule of law that is, if we all agree that the basic foundation of the rule of law is the inalienable right of the governed to select, monitor and replace its own leaders.
I don’t know for how long the international community will continue to turn a blind eye to this kind of rape, this vicious manipulation, of the democratic process in Africa. The fact that this nefarious pattern of succession is becoming rampant in former French colonies doesn’t even seem to bother the French, whose president was quick to congratulate Ali Bongo of Gabon (recently “elected” to succeed his father) even though other candidates were still challenging the outcome of the elections and calling for a recount. The international community has often considered issues of succession as the internal affairs of states, even though we know too well that when the succession process is flawed and becomes contentious, the problems it engenders go far beyond the capacity of any state to deal with them.
The international community needs to act decisively and quickly in identifying, condemning and isolating leaders who abuse and manipulate the constitutional process to impose themselves and their children on their populations. This is very important to do, giving the growing evidence that point to the fact that in most parts of Africa, the lack of a true and genuine democratic alternation is rolling back the development process.
Such is the case in the Central African Sub-Region, a region rich in immense natural resources (oil, timber, minerals, etc) but whose population has been reduced to levels of near vegetal decay.
Most, if not all, of the presidents of the countries that make up the Central African Sub -Region (Cameroon, Central African Republic, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea, Tchad and Congo Brazzaville) are de facto presidents-for-life. Two of them (Cameroon and Tchad) have already amended the constitution removing provisions that limit presidential terms. Three others (Congo Brazzaville, Equatorial Guinea, and Central African Republic) have their sons in influential positions poised to take over. One son (Gabon) has already taken over. In July 2003, one of the leaders (Obiang Ngeuma Mbazogo of Equatorial Guinea) declared himself a god “with the power to kill without being called to account and without going to hell”.
These are the kind of leaders we have in the Central African Sub-Region in the 21st Century.
While in other parts of Africa – like in Ghana, South Africa, Zambia, Botswana, Mali etc - democratic alternation is bringing new hopes and new visions to its people, leaders of the Central African Sub-Region are arrogating to themselves the status of “gods” and working hard to built and perpetuate an imperial presidency akin to medieval monarchies. No wonder that in spite of its enormous natural resources, the Central African Sub-Region remains the most backward place on the continent.
The violence that followed the “election” of Faure Gnassingbe to succeed his father in Togo and the carnage currently going on in Gabon after the proclamation of Ali Bongo as his father’s successor should constitute a teachable moment for a continent already beleaguered by more than its fair share of socio-political strife. These events speak eloquently to the determination of a people to resist leaders who choose to manipulate the constitution and impose their sons on the nation.
But is any one listening and learning? I don’t think so. I’m however, comforted by the fact that all through the course of human history, imperialism in what ever shape or form has never endured for ever. So I know for sure that even Africa’s imperial presidencies shall be subdued. The human cost shall be high as in Togo and Gabon. But history shall always be on the side of those who resisted tyranny and injustice, not with those who had the power and the leverage to stop them, but yet failed in that responsibility. And here, I’m referring to the international community which seems to be exuding a sense of inexcusable indolence in the face of such naked travesties of the democratic transfer of power.
*The author is a former World Bank Scholar at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and currently a Civil Affairs Officer serving with the United Nations Mission in Haiti.