Officially, a mere three of the 54 African states are still ruled by monarchs: Morocco (where King Mohammed VI’s family claims a descent from the Prophet himself), Lesotho (ruled by King Letsie III since 1996), and Swaziland (under the absolute power of Mswati III since 1986). Nevertheless, Africa is full of ‘de facto’ kings and emperors. These are men who arrived to power after long wars against colonialism or many years in the political opposition, army officers who staged military coups, and even democratically elected politicians. They all share common traits: long-lasting rules, full of plebiscitary re-elections and, according to many reports of human right advocates, infringements of the most basic rights.
Many republican leaders of the past had noble ancestors. Among them is the first president of the Ivory Coast, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who held power for 33 years and came from a prominent family of the baoulé ethnic group, the most important in that West African country. “It is not good for a baoulé king to know the name of his heir”, he once said talking about the future of his country. Many current rulers seem to have taken this principle as an inspiration, even if they lack ‘blue blood’. Equatorial Guinea’s Teodoro Obiang Nguema was the first of them to take power. As an army colonel, in 1979 he led a coup against the
first president of the former Spanish colony, Francisco Macias Nguema; who was Obiang Nguema’s uncle.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema was always re-elected with more than 90% of the votes. Recently, the president made headlines for two reasons: the UN-backed science prize entitled to Equatorial Guinea, funded by the government; and the spending spree of his son (and minister) Teodorin, linked, according to US and French prosecutors, to money laundering and corruption.
Angola’s president José Eduardo Dos Santos has been head of state since September 1979. He was officially elected for the first time only in 1991, after the end of the civil war which began in 1975. He has never left power since, even if immediately before the 2012 election he had aired rumours of a resignation after the vote. But after having obtained a secure majority and having rejected the last of many electoral fraud allegations, the president can now amend the constitution, in order to be allowed to lead the oil-rich country until 2022. Oil revenues enabled Angolan companies (directed by some of Dos Santos’s aides and relatives, including his daughter Isabel) to buy shares in some industries of crisis-hit Portugal (the former colonial power in Angola).
The third ‘immovable’ in charge is Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, prime minister since 1980 and president since 1985. After having contributed to toppling the segregationist white regime in what then was Southern Rhodesia, Mugabe became one of the most famous ‘de facto emperors’ in Africa. Since 2009 Mugabe has had to share power with a PM, his opponent Morgan Tsvangirai. A new election should take place this year, among fears of a repetition of what happened in 2008. In that year, according to the opposition and many international observers, the ruling élite forged the vote results, imposing a run-off in order to have the incumbent president re-elected.
From Prime minister to president: that was the path followed by Cameroonian Paul Biya in 1982. During the Biya rule, Cameroon made the news mainly for corruption. After having been dubbed “the most corrupt country in the world” by Transparency International in 1998 and 1999, the central African state has made little progress: operations to fight corruption are cyclically launched by the government but they are regarded in a disenchanted way by the citizens.