Dynastic politics in Africa

Grace Mugabe may not be a name known to most people outside of Zimbabwe when they think of potential next presidents for the country. However with the ever aging president of Zimbabwe (Robert Mugabe is now 90 years old), there is growing speculations of who will be next in line to rise to the heights of the presidency. Grace Mugabe in the past number of years has risen from the shadows to emerge as whom for many Zimbabweans think may be a contender for the presidency. But is this really the beginning of a Mugabe dynasty for Zimbabwe and what about dynastic politics in the rest of the continent?

Who is Grace Mugabe?

Grace Mugabe (née Marufu) is President Mugabe’s second wife who he wedded in 1996. They met while Grace was a sectary in State House in the capital Harare; however the new Mrs Mugabe has not shied away from the public attention despite the popularity of President Mugabe’s late wife Sally, who died in 1992. In recent years she has begun to play an ever vocal role in ZANU-PF, Zimbabwe’s current ruling party. No act represents her newfound interest in the public sphere more than her solo ‘Meet the Nation tour’ that saw her touring all of the nation’s provinces and main cities. Although this tour was officially ZANU-PF business it seems increasingly clear that it was also used as a platform to get her image and presence out to the people. So what image does Grace Mugabe have domestically? Within Zimbabwean press the titles “Gucci Grace” or “The First Shopper” often adorn articles about her and make reference to her extravagant life style of spending sprees in Europe and Asia while the rest of the people in Zimbabwe deal with crippling economic disparity.

Earlier this year she was awarded a PhD in sociology from the University of Zimbabwe. However not only was the person who awarded her the PhD her husband, acting in his position as chancellor of the university, but her award ceremony was only two months after she registered at the university. Due to the extremely short time scale and the fact that her PhD thesis is yet to be accounted for in the university archives many in Zimbabwe doubt the authenticity of this award and see it as an attempt by President Mugabe to somehow legitimise her intellectual authority and wider standing in society. Example after example suggests that she has only risen to her status due to her spouse and not through her own merit. Nothing represents this more than her recent key party placement as head of the ZANU-PF woman’s branch in December 2014.

Dynastic politics elsewhere

Throughout history Individual families have often disproportionally held influence over political affairs within their closed family units, this is not something new nor is it even particularly African. Examples of dynastic politics can be found all across the globe, from the Kennedy family who have given the United States one president and two senators, to the Bush family who have created two presidents and two state governors. Due to the structure of US politics and its systems of checks and balances it’s impossible for a leader to simply hand over power to a child or sibling. Rather the so called dynastic families of the USA represent how family members benefit from having other family members in high positions. In America running for presidency can cost millions, knowing the right wealthy donors and being in already well connected circles all dramatically help in the running for office. It’s then not of much surprise that it is often the children of Presidents and Senators with all the educational and social advantages they’ve received in life that go on and do what many children all across the world do, follow their parent’s career paths and enter the family business. Likewise Asia has seen its fair share of dynastic families, perhaps none more famous than that of Benazir Bhutto who became the president of Pakistan after the assassination of her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1976. This form of secessionist relationship however is more rare and very specific to time and place to the slightly more democratic if not elitist form of dynastic politics found in America and elsewhere.

So what about Africa and dynastic politics?

It is clear to see that throughout the continent there are countless examples of families who have for one or two generations now been involved in high level government positions. The current president of the Democratic Republic of Congo Joseph Kabila is the son of the late president Laurent Kabila who was assassinated while in office. Togo’s first president Gnassingbe Eyadem was succeeded my his son the current president Faure Gnassinge and the recently elected president of Kenya Uhuru Kenyatta is the son of Kenya’s independence leader and first president Jomo Kenyatta. Although two presidents have governed in-between both father and sons time in office in Kenya. It’s clear that for many African politicians keeping the business of running the country in the family is still seen as favourable. However with 54 officially recognised Countries in Africa and only a tiny handful showing recurring family members in government posts the role in which dynastic politics may play in shaping the continent in the future seems to be decreasing. With the continual growth of the middle classes in emerging states such as South Africa, Angola and Ghana due to economic prosperity, it’s likely that the importance of democratic institutions and the creation of further systems of checks and balances on presidents and prime ministers will eventually grow, if not slower than many would like.

A Mugabe dynasty?

With President Mugabe stating he will be running for the 2018 general election there is no sign of Grace Mugabe taking over the reins of state just yet. Rather opponents to ZANU-PF are suggesting that the rise of Grace Mugabe as a forerunner for presidential succession is not as serious a threat as it may seem, but rather a tactical plan. Recent allegations that the vice president of Zimbabwe and for whom many saw as a legitimate candidate for the next president Joice Mujuru, had made plans for Mr Mugabes to be assassinated have shocked the country. Although there has not yet been any proof on the matter nor has Mrs Mujuru been sentenced for plotting murder it is interesting to note the Grace Mugabe has been the key figure leading this recent campaign against Joice Mujuru. After a three month campaign by the Mugabe’s Joice Mujuru and 8 other ministers were sacked due to allegations of corruption and assassination. So will Dr Grace Mugabe be Zimbabwe’s next president in the near future? It’s hard to tell yet but nonetheless her undeserved presence in politics looks to only continue to strengthen Mr Mugabes regime and weaken the only realistic political competition he faces. Luckily cases such as these are becoming an ever increasing rarity in Africa as the continent continues to stride forward towards an increasingly democratic future.

By Matthew MacDonald

Matthew MacDonald graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London with a Politics & International Relations degree and will be starting a Masters degree in African Studies at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. His interests include Sub-Saharan Africa and Europe. 

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Categories: Africa

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