Power begets power: a story of political dynasties

Today, another African state is the deep throes of a controversial and probably undemocratic transfer of power from a dead father to a filthy rich son, surrounded by powerful individuals who seek to maintain the status quo and protect themselves, their riches and influence away from the hands of poor citizens.
L-R:In line: Ali Bongo Ondimba;FORMER: Omar Bongo;Gnassingbe Eyadema;SUCCEEDED FATHER:
L-R:In line: Ali Bongo Ondimba;FORMER: Omar Bongo;Gnassingbe Eyadema;SUCCEEDED FATHER:

Today, another African state is the deep throes of a controversial and probably undemocratic transfer of power from a dead father to a filthy rich son, surrounded by powerful individuals who seek to maintain the status quo and protect themselves, their riches and influence away from the hands of poor citizens.

Ali Bongo is about to succeed Omar Bongo, his father and also the longest serving African leader. It is a story reminiscent of African politics, in which military coups, dictatorship and political dynasties have become the norm and not the exception.

The Bongo succession reeks of Togo’s own, when Faure Gnassingbe succeeded his dead father President Gnassingbe Eyadema.

These among many other such stories reinforce the idea that political dynasties are the Achilles heel to the basic right of citizens to decide whoever they entrust with the business of running their government.

In traditional Africa, kingship gave the leader divine rights to power. Power and authority was inherited down through the family lineage. Power was entrusted to a leader even before they knew what they wanted to do with their lives.

It is easy for anyone to say that political dynasties in Africa are left overs from the tradition of kingship and are a sign of political immaturity in the young African nations which only became sovereign states after largely using force to remove the yoke of colonialism from its people’s necks.

So is political dynasty just another African disease? Apparently not! Political dynasties are not exclusively the domain for African politics.

In fact, all through the civilized world as well as in Asia, political dynasties are ground in not only dictatorships but in mature democracies as well.

In the United States, its’ over two century history of political dueling is littered with prominent families which have battled against the common frame to hold power.

Recently, the death of Senator Ted Kennedy marked the end of a tragic-comic political dominance that has enthralled generations in the United States.

The most famous member of them President J. F. Kennedy lived to achieve his father’s long held dream of reaching the White House, although an assassin’s bullet cut short his budding presidency and opened the way for other members of his family to extend the family’ political reputation.

In India, the Nehru-Gandhi family’s hold on politics (Mahatma Gandhi was not a member of this family) has woven itself for four generations around the world’s oldest democracy.

Yet again, the biggest enemy to this family, like many others is the assassin’s bullet. Perhaps mindful of this history, the latest Gandhi to wield authority only accepted to hold the position of party leader for the India National Congress and lead it to power but declined to become the prime minister.

Sonia Gandhi herself has an interesting history. Born in Italy, she became Indian when she married Rajiv Gandhi on condition that he would never go to politics but in the face of political pressure not only did her husband end up in power but the fatal fate of his mother and grand father also followed him.

In these two cases, family links survived in a flourishing democracy. Actually some members tried but fell at the ballot box hence validating their existence of the family with the people’s rubberstamp.

Therefore, political dynasties are not entirely an undemocratic ideology.
On the other hand a different scenario appears in countries like communist North Korea, Cuba, DR Congo and Syria where power is handed down to relatives in a less than democratic manner.

The emergence of “republican dynasties” in authoritarian states started with North Korea when alter the death of President Kim Il-Sung, his son Kim Jong-Il became his successor in 1994, thereby creating the communist world’s first dynasty.

Last year, after the death of Syria’s President Hafez al Assad, his son Bashar succeeded him. Hence the question of political dynasties being an inherently African problem technically goes through the window.

Oliver Cromwell in the 1680’s tried the idea that revolution would topple monarchist politics.

He said that in all medieval Europe the political idea about the Divine Rights of Kings was paramount; and both society and church, in that pre-modern era, developed intellectual rationalization. Eucharia Mbachu writes that Cromwell’s prediction came to pass.

The American Revolution and the French Revolution which came almost thirteen years later, followed by the Russian Revolution.

Were all driven by an ideology which questioned many of the philosophical and social assumptions of monarchy, and was determined to bring about justice among human beings?

The Russian Revolution took the British, the American and the French revolutions to elevated heights. Not only was kingship abolished, but property, which is highly valued in the realm of American economic and political thought, was taken away from the custodians of lands.

The Iranian Revolution was the last in the series. So the death of monarchism was a worldwide trend that perhaps arrived in Africa much later.

In the emergence of political dynasties however are a few reasons that seem to knot through all such families irrespective of level of political development of a country. One such reason is charisma.

Like for the Kennedy’s’ of America, the Gandhis’ of India, the Bhutto’s of Pakistan and the Bandranaike’s of Sri Lanka. People are in constant search of heroes who enthrall their imagination and are willing to entrust power in relatives of charismatic leader.

Mosca in 1896 argued that “every class displays the tendency to become hereditary, in fact if not in law,” and that even when political positions are open to all, a family tie to those already in power would confer various advantages.

Financial power and political connection is one such reason. Candidates who belong to political dynasties usually due to their power have built massive political networks and strong financial muscle to support a run for political office.

George Bush Junior, a political novice by far was able to master a serious stub at the presidency because his father was a former president with strong links to the crucial oil business while his brother Jeb Bush was the governor of Florida, the state in which a cliffhanger election was controversially settled in his brother’s favor.

Another crucial factor is the role a family or a member of a family plays in the forming of a nation. The Nehru family in India, Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma, Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya, Megawati Sukarnoputri in Indonesia, Hafez al Assad in Syria, Kim Il-Sung are leaders who have their claim to popularity because of their older relatives’ role in nationalistic building of their countries.

Kamal Mitra Chenoy, professor of politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University told the BBC thinks that family links can only take a politician so far.

“Mrs. Indira Gandhi was voted out of power, and so was her son Rajiv Gandhi. And Mrs. Sonia Gandhi has never taken elected office, primarily this time because she knew it would make the whole government weak because of her foreign origins.

“And the same is true of the Bandaranaikes in Sri Lanka”, where President Chandrika Kumaratunga is the daughter of two former prime ministers, Solomon and Srimavo Bandaranaike.

A 2007 study of political dynasties by concludes that when a person holds more power, it becomes more likely that this person will start, or continue, a political dynasty.

Thus, political power in democracies becomes inheritable de facto, for reasons other than permanent differences in family characteristics.

But in cases like in the political uncertainty after the death of DR Congo’s Desire Kabila, his son has surprisingly waded through the murky political waters of the troubled nation and come closest to pacifying a country whose history is littered with rebellion.

Therefore, political dynasties are not bad per se, in fact they can be good, however, and each political dynasty should be viewed through its own unique lenses for its merits and demerits.

In certain potentially unstable governments a political dynasty could come in handy to calm the different forces that seek power during a sudden transition. On the other hand a political dynasty can be used to perpetuate a regime of evil in order to prevent the undoing of bad deeds and the unraveling of ill-gotten wealth or traditionally powerful liaisons.




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