The four ‘grand old men’ in Guinea, Angola, Zimbabwe, and Cameroon have many ‘disciples’ all around Africa. Younger in age or in government duration, but similar in their steadfast hold on power, many with a past as soldiers or fighters.
Actually, according to some analysts, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni might be preparing a dynastic-like succession for his son, Muhoozi (recently promoted to Brigadier General and appointed as commander of the Special Forces Group) or his first lady, Janet. What is still unclear, though, is when the president would hand over his power. His rule started when he took Kampala in 1986. After having defeated his longtime opponent Kizza Besigyie in a much contested 2011 election, the president might even resist the pressure for retirement that is coming from his own party, the NRM.
Also Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré is ‘alone in command’. On 15 October 1987 he led the coup in which the late president Thomas Sankara was killed: Compaoré was his deputy and friend. After having obtained succession by military means, the new president started a rule whose duration proved to be unusual for Burkina Faso. In time, he also gained the role of chief negotiator in many regional crises. International commitment, nevertheless, cannot make up for fading internal support: popular protests and military uprisings took place in 2011 despite Compaoré’s re-election in November 2010. He has never spoken about succession and might be a presidential candidate in 2015, too.
The lives of Sudan’s Omar al Bashir and Chad’s Idriss Déby are intertwined: they seized power in their countries thanks to military coups, in 1989 and 1990 respectively. They are long-time enemies – Déby has repeatedly accused Sudan of backing Chadian rebel groups which in 2008 were repulsed from N’Djamena, Chad’s capital city, only with French help. The two politicians improved their mutual relationship between 2010 (when the two countries officially signed a peace treaty) and 2012 (when Déby married the daughter of a top Sudanese janjaweed fighter). The Darfur conflict also unites them: Déby’s Chad hosts many of the people displaced because of the war, which cost Bashir an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court.
Succession is hardly a concern for both of them: Bashir’s strengths are a split opposition (both armed and political) and diverging opinions in his own party, the NCP, on the name of the possible nominee for the 2015 elections. It will surely not be another Bashir: the current president married three times but has no children. Instead Déby, who grasped power from the dictator Hissene Habré, managed to remain in charge also because of an ad hoc constitutional reform, allowing him to run for a third term in 2005. That year voting operations were in fact suspect: after the highly contested 2001 elections, the opposition boycotted those of 2006 and 2011.
On the other hand, elections were never held in Eritrea: after independence, in 1993, Isaias Afewerki, then head of the provisional government, should have led the country to a multi-party vote. This never took place. Power in Asmara nowadays, is still in the hands of the president and of a handful of generals, whereas former ministers are prisoners of conscience in Eritrean jails. They are not alone: Human Rights Watch once called Eritrea an “open-air prison”. An isolationist by choice, Afewerki went to war with Yemen in 1995 over some Red Sea islands, then – from 1998 to 2000 – with Ethiopia, and finally in 2008 with Djibouti, once again over a border dispute.
Capriciousness also seems to be one of Yahya Jammeh’s main traits: a former army officer who took power in Gambia in a 1994 bloodless coup. The former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade once said that with Jammeh “you never know what is going to happen”. Except for re-election, obviously: Jammeh clearly prevailed in four different votes, the latest in 2011. Although none were considered free and fair by the international community, some traditional chiefs asked for the president to be crowned king of Gambia. It is many years that Jammeh has considered himself a miracle maker, claiming to have a cure for HIV and ousting a UN representative who doubted his ‘powers’.
In the same 1994 which saw Jammeh’s ascent to power, Paul Kagame became the real ruler of Rwanda, despite only holding the government posts of deputy president and defence minister. In 2000 he was elected by the Parliament as the new head of state and elections in 2003 and 2007 allowed him to remain in office. A former guerrilla leader (first with Museveni in Uganda, then in his own country) since gaining power he has been accused of authoritarianism many times. In particular, his much-criticized use of ‘anti-genocide’ laws has been depicted as a way to file lawsuits against opposition figures. The Rwandan president often spoke about his succession but never took a clear stance. “The most important thing is to focus on building institutions. We make sure that they function irrespective of whether there will be Kagame or someone else,” he told al-Jazeera’s Riz Khan in 2011, without giving any clues on his future role.
The youngest (from a political point of view) of the eternally re-elected African presidents are Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algiers, and Djibouti’s strongman Ismail Omar Guelleh. They came to power in their respective countries in 1999 almost on the same day: Bouteflika on April 27, Guelleh on May 8. The latter recently changed the constitution in order to be elected for a third term.
The main difference between the two regards their relationship with opposition groups: they have seats in the Algerian Parliament (but not enough to contrast Bouteflika’s rule) whereas Guelleh’s party controls the entire Dijbouti legislative body. Instead, both presidents have good relationships with Western powers: Guelleh dies for strategic reasons (the US and France both have important military bases in Djibouti), and Bouteflika profits from the key role Algeria has in supplying gas to Europe.
Finally, both are familiar with political dynasties: Guelleh’s predecessor was his uncle, Hassan Gouled Aptidon, and according to some experts Bouteflika could be succeeded by his brother Said.