Where Does the Apple Fall from the Tree? On Familial Political Legacy in Africa
For all the calls for change in U.S. politics, the most likely scenario for the 2016 presidential election presents two familiar family names: Clinton vs. Bush. For a country supposedly based on meritocracy, this is a curious turn of events. It is also bewildering how no one questions the legitimacy of this postulation as nepotism. Apparently this kind of possible nepotism is as old as the founding of the republic, with the sixth president being the son of the second president. But it took over 170 years for it to happen again with George H Bush, the 41st President, and his son, George H.W. Bush, as the 43rd President.
Ruling political families are as old as politics itself. The default western mode of governing, monarchy, and its inherited lineage forms one of the innate weaknesses of this mode of leadership. Not all children fall close to the family tree but children tend to soak in what they see around them. And just as doctors tend to produce doctors and lawyers produce lawyers, politicians too beget politicians. This is not a bad thing as children tend to mimic their parents and there is really no inborn leadership trait in families (at least I think not). The problem lies in the fact that bad leadership tendencies can also be mimicked as well as good ones. More corrosively, someone born into leadership may have less empathy than someone who attained it.
The part of the world where inheritance of country leadership is most pervasive is Asia. There are the Bhuttos of Pakistan, the Gandhis of India running on their third generations, with in-laws further complicating both pictures. The number of tragic assassinations within those two families alone should make following one’s parents foot-steps into politics a foolish proposition anywhere in the world. Then there is Bangladesh, where for the last 30 years, two women, one the daughter of a former leader who was assassinated and the other the wife of a leader who was also assassinated have played a game of political tit-for-tat. There is Singapore, now led by the son of Lee Kwan Yew, the first leader of the country. The Philippines has the Aquinos. No doubt, this fails to even come close to exhausting all the political lineages in Asia.
In Africa, after the initial exuberance of the post-independence period, the continent’s countries went on to become either one party states or military dictatorships. Progenies of dictators who managed to succeed their fathers led with universally bad results. They evoked images of spoilt brats being given countries as gifts by their fathers. Democratic renaissance started again in Africa in the 1990s, when dictators could no longer play the global capitalist/communist divide to sustain their hold on power. This turn of events has brought about the children of former and current political leaders participating in democratic governance and standing for elections. In Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the first elected Prime Minister of Kenya ran against the son of his father’s first deputy Prime Minister, Raila Odinga. The great Nkurumah’s daughter is in parliament in Ghana and heads a political party. Peter Mutharika will be contesting for office later this year to run for the post his father died in, as President of Malawi.
I must confess I didn’t come to think about this issue in the abstract. My father became the military leader of Nigeria after a failed coup attempt in 1976. He had joined the Nigerian military as a way to make something out of his life after high school when he could not receive a scholarship for college and could not afford tuition. The first military coup was in 1966, 10 years after he had joined the army. As the army participated in governance, he was offered political appointments along the way. By the time of the 1976 coup, through military coups and counter-coups he was deputy to the military head of state who was assassinated in the attempted coup. He retired from the army and as the leader of the country in 1979, putting in place a civilian government, long before it was fashionable to do so. After another set of coups and counter-coups, a military dictator was again in power and he railed against the dictator everywhere he could. For this sin, he was put under trial and jailed for treason. I can still remember my last conversation with him before the arrest. He was in Denmark for a conference and I was in North Carolina in the US in a post-doctoral program. I told him about rumors and reports in Nigerian newspapers that he was about to be arrested and he shouted back that he will not be intimidated and would continue to speak out against the government. I was unable to speak to him for over three years after that phone call. After the death of the dictator in 1999, he was released from jail along with all political prisoners and ran for and won the Presidency.
As the child of someone involved in governance from the time I was a child, I have ferociously followed local and global politics, wherever I am. In 2002, I went back to Nigeria to have my two year-old son meet my parents for the first time and it happened to be when my dad was campaigning for reelection. I went with him on some campaign rallies and I was hooked. I had grown up under military dictatorships and during the short civilian era in the 1980s I was a teenager not a full participant of the election process. It was like a bazaar. Floods of people filled the seating areas and standing areas of stadiums. The crowd responded with shouts of exhilaration to the speakers on the podium. The podium was filled with joviality and camaraderie and impromptu adjustment or suggestions to the speakers. I went with my dad to more campaigns and slowly got to know the inner echelon of his party and government. I got invitations to attend other campaigns on my own. I went on to campaign with the Vice-President’s team, the governorship candidate for our state and the senatorial candidate for our area. In short I spent about three months of 2003 as a political roadie. Showing up and eventually speaking at campaigns. On the day of the elections in April 2003, my car was shot at on a deserted rural road. I was not in the car but the 5 people inside were killed. Three adults and two children. I had campaigned because I enjoyed the atmosphere and had no specific goal in mind but as I tried to reflect after the shooting, I felt my best response was not to withdraw but to further engage. I was offered an appointment by the governor I had campaigned for and I took it, living in my state of origin in Nigeria for the first time. It was daunting but I adjusted. What I could not adjust to was slowly realizing that the Governors promises to the people, during the campaign were a sham. Governance, as he saw it, was about him, not the people. I thought I could make a difference if I worked within the federal system. Since I was already living in Abeokuta, the location of my senatorial district, I could run a campaign easily. I did and I won. In Abuja, Nigeria’s capital, I knew serving as an elected official would involve some politics but I thought the focus for all elected persons here would be the country and its people. I was sorely misguided. Self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement ruled the day.
I have had cause to reflect on my brief journey in politics and I now think I did believe the vision of leadership my father gave of hard work, giving back and service. That governance was about what you give, not what you take. Being motivated by money never even crossed my mind. I sincerely thought I wanted to be part of creating a Nigeria that would be a world leader and the first truly great black nation on Earth. People from political families have to rationalize that our family member spending their time and effort on something and sacrificing so much of family life must be doing so for a greater good. I don’t know if familial closeness creates good politicians but I do know that it brings you close to the issues and problems of your country in unique ways and exposes you to situations of political advantage which can be leveraged for a political career. Whether this is good for a country is anyone’s guess.
Dr. Obasanjo graduated from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria in 1988 with a degree in Veterinary Medicine. She has a Master’s degree from University of California at Davis and a PhD in Epidemiology from Cornell University. After her post-doc at Wake Forest University, she worked in Clinical Research in the US until 2003 when she was appointed the Commissioner for Health for her state of origin in Nigeria. She contested and won a seat to the Nigerian Senate in 2007, and was the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Health till her term ended in 2011. She was an Advanced Leadership Fellow at Harvard University in 2012 and 2013. Her project was on building advocacy for African women’s Issues. She has several scientific publications in her field as well as newspaper and journal articles on African development issues and is currently a Distinguished Fellow at the African Presidential Center of Boston University.