That the African region is home to majority of the world’s longest-ruling heads of state is no news
By Ebenezer Obadare
According to a 2021 Council on Foreign Relations report, “Since 1960, a dozen heads of state across sub-Saharan Africa have held office for more than thirty years.” A further breakdown reveals that five sitting African heads of state (Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, Cameroon’s Paul Biya, the Republic of Congo’s Daniel Sassou Nguesso, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, and Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki, respectively) have held office for more than three decades each, while “More than a dozen other African heads of state have been in power for at least ten years.”
Paul Biya, who has held office since 1982, is, at 90, the oldest head of government in the world. Footage of him floundering at the recent US-Africa Leaders Summit shows how much time has tracked him down.
Much policy attention has been devoted to the impact of this phenomenon on economic development and political stability in the region, the consensus being firmly on the side of its overall deleteriousness. For their part, students of the arts of resistance in Africa have highlighted how ordinary people endure the rigors of daily life under one-man political regimes.
Yet, how political control is maintained, often times in the teeth of concerted and sustained opposition, should also be of equal interest, especially since proper understanding can generate insights for policymakers and scholars seeking an appreciation of the all-important social milieu in which power is produced, resisted, or, depending on the situation, brutally imposed.
Coercion tends to be the go-to answer to the question of how authoritarian leaders manage to stay in the saddle for so long, and there is indeed plenty of evidence in support of that. After all, sundry African dictators continue to mobilize state violence to eliminate political opponents, pacify human rights activists, hound the opposition into exile, sway the legislature and judiciary, petrify the media, and generally create an atmosphere of fear. Whatever barefaced elimination cannot do; the occasional automobile accident (sic) often has.
Nevertheless, while force is a critical weapon of mass pacification, experience has shown that it requires more than brute force to suppress dissent and impose the dictator’s will. Since the overall object is to make the people unable to imagine a world without their dearly beloved dictator, it behooves him to invest in practices that create and sustain the conditions for social homogeneity and mental uniformity.
Ingratiating with targeted members of the political elite is imperative to this exercise of “soft power.” Once successfully incorporated, members of the elite can be relied upon to do the dictator’s work of “legitimation” for him, which explains the ostensible correlation between elite compliance and dictatorial longevity. Elite capture being incomplete without the assimilation of the clerical class, leaders with designs on lifelong tenure unsurprisingly devote considerable effort and resources to the cultivation and incorporation of the religious elite, effectively making them an extension of the ruling class. The additional aura of spiritual authority on top of considerable social clout makes conquest of the religious elite especially coveted.
In parenthesis: That the clerical class is a critical fulcrum of political stability is beyond question; the only problem is that in playing this role, it is often heedless of the moral or ideological complexion of the dominant constellation. In short order, the religious elite becomes involved in a struggle for political power, leading to a blurring of boundaries that has important implications for politics and spirituality, respectively.
Invariably, the dictator’s attitude towards the thinking classes—whether within the academy or the media—is less agreeable. Allowed, the intelligentsia can be as dirigible as the religious elite—a whole garrison of Nigerian professors of political science were stationed inside Aso Rock during the military era—but such, fortunately, is its inherent diversity that even the most meticulous dictator cannot hope to subordinate the entire academy. Yet, what cannot be conquered can at least be devastated, and the sorry state of many African universities is due in part to the deliberate assault on them by leaders eager to bring the professoriate to heel.
As it happens, attack on the universities is a mere entrée into an out-and-out onslaught against civil society, particularly the media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). For the wannabe ruler for life, the point is to emasculate these institutions and social forces as enclaves of independent power, the better to erode public confidence in them and encrust the perception that there is no alternative to the incumbent regime. As a last option, whenever the dictator cannot completely crush civil society, he manufactures his own.
Finally, in the state under the eternal leader, being of some necessity an affective one, the dictator is invariably ringed by a vast network of sisters, brothers, nephews, uncles, cousins, wives, and, not to forget, concubines. One political use of this familial nexus is to provide the intelligence and security that the leader reckons he may not count on from regular law enforcement and bureaucracy. This explains why most presidential guards are headed by family members, typically sons, of the forever leader. At the same time, if the longest ruling African leaders preside over mostly ineffectual bureaucracies, it is precisely because the consolidation of personal power necessitates their (i.e., the bureaucracies’) systematic subversion.
Beyond security, and as some recent examples of some First Ladies, First Daughters, and First Sons have underscored, family and kinship networks are also useful as vehicles of larceny. Over time, and as they become accustomed to the perks and licenses of quasi-statesmanship without portfolio, such family members become more vested in keeping the leader in power, prompting power struggles that are only marginally connected to the public good. More things unfold within those filial circles than are dreamt of in all political philosophy.
Upstaging rulers determined to hang on until they draw their final breath requires long-term policy thinking and commitment. Paradoxically, it requires paying attention to the political wellness of the societies they have brought to heel rather than the leaders themselves.
Three things are essential. First, the United States and western governments must think beyond “political stability” under the auspices of the Dear Leader by supporting political devolution and local initiatives that will create and strengthen multiple centers of power. Furthermore, since African states have no chance of attaining long-term political stability and economic prosperity without a strong and independent private sector, resources must be directed at empowering the African private sector in all its ramifications. As evidence across the advanced economies has shown, the less reliant people are on arbitrary state largesse, the greater their capacity to resist it. Finally, it goes without saying that none of this can be accomplished without the rule of law. Over and above material support for the judiciary and law enforcement, which is crucially important, western powers must commit to moral solidarity with Africans in their attempts to consecrate a political culture which upholds the dignity of the individual as inviolable.
Fortunately, if there is one thing one has in dealing with leaders for life, it is time.
*Professor Ebenezer Obadare is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow for Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).This article was originally published by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) as part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy: https://www.cfr.org/blog/art-ruling-life