THE 2016 American election is likely to have a much bigger impact on Africa than the one of 2008, when Barack Obama, whose father was Kenyan, became the first black leader of the country.
It will especially be so if two things happen: First, if Hillary Clinton, former Foreign minister and wife to Bill Clinton, the charismatic 42nd president of the US, is nominated as the Democratic Party candidate as she seems very likely to.
Secondly, if John Ellis “Jeb” Bush, former Governor of Florida, the second son of former President George H. W. Bush (the 41st), and younger brother of former President George W. Bush (number 43) is nominated to lead the Republican presidential challenge.
Obama’s victory was mostly inspirational in continent where a Pew Research in 2014 found that 74% of Africans—well above the global median of 65%—had an overall favourable view of the US. However, many also think the US has a terrifying racist and aggressive side.
That said, many Africans never thought they would live to see America elect a black president. Obama’s win sparked off a belief among many young Africans that they too could achieve the impossible. Around Africa, thousands of children, pubs, buildings, buses and taxis were named Obama.
What Obama didn’t change
Obama’s presidency, though, has hardly reshaped African politics. A face off between Clinton and Bush, however, would totally upset one of the most vexing issues in African politics today – the attempt by many presidents to hand power to their children, wives, or relatives, and create dynasties.
African leaders have always pushed back, and reacted angrily, to criticism by the west that they are undemocratic and election thieves. They are regularly joined by many intellectuals in the continent, and the west too, who reject western-style liberal democracy as “unsuitable” to Africa.
Partly as a result of this, a cottage industry has grown up in Africa where leaders and their cheerleaders closely follow western politics to catch “African characteristics”, which they then use to argue that the west (the US in particular) is double-faced when it criticises them for doing the same things it too does.
Thus when the US or some European leader lambasts an African president like Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe for repressing opponents and, and when goons from his party beat and kill rivals, Harare is quick to point to American drones killing innocent civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan, or its troops torturing prisoners in Iraq, to make the point that it has no right to criticise others, as it too commits abuses.
When American police shoot unarmed black men, and violently break up anti-racists protests in Ferguson, African State Houses are quick to seize on it, painting America as a fallible power with feet of clay.
What the Big Men really want
However, these are “bad” things that America and its western allies France, do. What dynastic African presidents have really been looking for is a “good” thing that is widely affirmed by western voters, to help normalise things that is otherwise controversial in their countries using the examples.
Some of them and their propagadists picked on George Bush’s election as America’s 43rd in 2000, to justify placing their relatives in positions of power in their governments, but that looked like a one-off, so it didn’t stick.
In 2008 Hillary Clinton battled with Obama for the Democratic Party nomination. Her bid was more useful to African leaders than Bush Junior’s, because it broke new ground. Thing is, African presidents rarely try to get their brothers to succeed them. They would rather their children or wives, as is suspected in the case of Mugabe and his wife Grace; or South Africa’s Jacob Zuma and his ex-wife, African Union Commission boss Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, or Uganda’s president Yoweri Museveni and his wife Janet.
Alternatively, the political grapevine is usually filled with claims that First Sons are being groomed. Again Museveni and his son, Brigadier Muhoozi Kainerugaba, commander of the Special Forces Group, which contains the Presidential Guard Brigade. The fact that they deny it, and they might be right to, hasn’t stopped the discussion.
No First Lady has inherited power
In Egypt dictator Hosni Mubarak’s attempts to position one of his sons to succeed him ended in him losing power.
In Libya, the eccentric and despotic Mummar Gaddafi’s political partnership with his son Saif ended even more badly, with the dictator lynched by a revolutionary mob, and the son captured and humiliated by rebels.
Though many sons have succeeded their fathers, in only a few cases (READ: All the African presidents’ relatives: A famous big man’s surname doesn’t always help get you into State House) has it been been democratically. Where it has happened, it has been well after their fathers’ rule, but in most cases, it has been possible where their autocratic patriarch dies, catching rivals by surprise, enabling his apparatus to quickly move to install the son before opponents rally, as happened in Togo with Faure Gnassigbe Eyadema and in Gabon with Ali Bongo Ondimba in 2009. However, none has so far succeeded in installing their dear wives as successors - either while they are still alive, or from beyond the grave.
The optics of Clinton, wife of a former First Lady, and Jeb Bush, brother and son to former presidents of the country that touts itself as the “leader of the free world” would make a loud noise in Africa, and possibly finally tip the dynastic equal in favour of African incumbents because now they can argue that it has become an established pattern, and no longer just a fluke.
It’s quite complex
This really matters, for reasons many often miss: It’s not just because African incumbents rarely lose power, but that ruling parties do so even less—including in relatively democratic nations like Botswana. Since independence in 1966 Botwana has been ruled by the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) that wins in fairly honestly multiparty elections.
Tanzania, one of the more stable African nations, through both its one-party and multiparty life has been ruled by Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM or Party of Revolution), in its two incarnations since the country’s independence in December 1961.
Mugabe just turned 91 and celebrated it with a typically extravagant bash, but while it remains to be seen whether he will have the legs under him to run in 2018 and extend his rule as the only leader the country has known since independence in 1980, it will be a long time before his ruling ZANU-PF loses power even if he were to bow out.
Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, Uganda, Ethiopia, South Africa, to name a few, are all in the same boat.
Rulers go, regimes stay
The situation in 2014, when for the first time opposition parties on the continent won four elections in a year, will probably not come around again for a long time because the electoral cycles happened accidentally so that the few countries or territories where incumbents usually or are likely to lose power anyway – Mauritius, Tunisia, Puntland-Somalia, Malawi – held their votes in the same year.
Because ruling parties rarely lose, the biggest change in the political and economic fortunes of African nations comes from leadership changes within these dominant parties, not from fresh opposition leaders and parties taking power.
The difference in outcomes of different presidents of the same ruling parties can be like day and night; e.g. Nelson Mandela’s South Africa under the African National Congress (ANC) and the same country and party led today by president Jacob Zuma.
Or better still, Zambia’s under Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) led by the petty and vindictive Frederick Chiluba, and the same party led by his successor, the more broadminded Levy Mwanawasa.
Worryingly, it is also in the long-ruling party regimes that leaders usually seek to hand power to family members, and where, because they wield so much personalised power inside them, that they are likely to succeed.
The biggest beneficiary of, especially, a Hillary Clinton victory, therefore, could be the dynastic forces in ham-fisted long-ruling parties.
It could set back the argument for reform inside even authoritarian parties by years. With indications that Clinton is a shoo-in as the Democratic Party nomination, and several analysts saying the 2016 race is hers to lose, Big Men in Africa are probably already rubbing their hands gleefully.
It will be a democratic election, yes, but its consequences in a continent nearly 10,000 kilometres away could be profoundly undemocratic.The irony here is that for anti-dynastic African democrats, Clinton and Bush, are right now the least frightening two pretenders to the American throne in 2016.