Central Africa: Cradle of French-Sponsored African Life Presidencies, Authoritarianism, Underdevelopment

Chad will hold a presidential election on April 11, 2021. The outcome of the vote is already known, at least preparations are already underway in N’djamena to crown incumbent President Idriss Deby Itno for a sixth consecutive mandate. Mr. Deby has been President in Chad since he led a rebellion and overthrew then President Hissène Habré in December 1990. He has since survived various rebellions and coup attempts against his own 30-year-long rule.

This scenario is not uncommon in Central Africa, specifically in the CEMAC (Economic and Monetary Community of Central African States) zone made up of Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Congo- Brazzaville, Gabon, and Equatorial Guinea. These six countries alone hold the record for the oldest and longest serving presidents in Africa and the world.

Presidents Bongo and Obiang Nguema (C) Geopolitical Intelligence Services

One of the things the CEMAC leaders have all become renowned for is that they organize elections regularly and always all secure victories by astronomical margins that simply send the message that the existence of opposition parties in the subregion is for the show. The only instance in Central Africa where an incumbent organized an election, lost to the Opposition, and handed over power was in Congo Brazzaville in 1992.  

President Denis Sassou Nguesso, under pressure from several international sources, introduced multiparty politics in 1990 and was then stripped of executive powers by the 1991 National Conference. He remained in office as a ceremonial head of state until 1992 when he stood as a candidate in the Presidential Election and came third, losing to Pascal Lissouba. Mr. Nguesso idled in the opposition for five years and returned to power through a civil war between 1997 and 1999 in which his rebel forces ousted President Lissouba. Following a transitional period, he won the 2002 Presidential Election, which involved low opposition participation.

Mr. Nguesso’s return to power in 2002 marked a new era where he copied from others in the subregion and has never lost any election anymore. In 2015, Mr. Nguesso also went the way of others in the subregion by introducing a new constitution to lift term limits and install himself as president for life. The new constitution was churned through a referendum whose result was, unsurprisingly, known in advance, and it paved the way for Mr. Nguesso to stand for another term which he won in 2016. Mr. Nguesso is widely expected to win yet another mandate on Sunday, March 21, when the 2021 Presidential Election in that country is scheduled to be held.

The Central African Republic is the other exception in the subregion where constant coups and counter-coups have made it impossible for anyone to settle down as a life president. François Bozizé sent Ange Felix Patassé packing, only to be kicked out the same way by Michel Djotodia with his Séléka rebels. Mr. Djotodia himself had a brief stay as President of the war-torn country as continued unrest forced his peers to ask him out of the place and into exile.

The current President of the Central African Republic, Faustin-Archange Touadéra sailed to power in 2016 and has not had a quiet moment from rebel groups sympathetic to his opponents, among them Mr. Bozizé. Although he secured another mandate at the December 27, 2020 election, Mr. Touadéra’s presidency remains on shaky grounds as Séléka rebels reportedly backed by France and loyal to Mr. Bozizé continue to create panic and unrest in most parts of the country.

Wikipedia lists four of the six presidents in Central Africa among the top ten longest-serving presidents in the world. According to Wikipedia’s classification, Paul Biya of Cameroon occupies the first position globally, having ruled for 45 years, 255 days as of March 12, 2021. He is credited to have begun his tenure on June 30, 1975 when he was named Prime Minister by then-President Ahmadou Ahidjo. Mr. Ahidjo went on to resign from the top job and handpicked Mr. Biya to be his successor on November 6, 1982.

Paul Biya of Cameroon, the oldest and longest-serving president in Africa and the world

Mr. Biya came under intense pressures in the early 1990s to introduce multiparty politics. He yielded to the pressure, opened-up the political field and went ahead to organize the first pluralist presidential poll which he reportedly lost to Opposition leader, Ni John Fru Ndi, according to several sources, but hung onto power. Over the years, Mr. Biya and his party, the CPDM found a way of organizing elections that guaranteed his victory even before campaigns began. Mr. Biya who is currently serving his third seven-year term at the age of 88, is widely expected to run again in 2025. Aides to the ailing President who has not been seen at any public event for over a year are already promoting his candidature.

Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo at age 78, holds the unenviable second place as longest-serving head of state in the world. He ousted his uncle, Francisco Macías Nguema, in a military coup in August 1979 and has held tight to the presidency to date. According to political observers, the constitution provides Mr. Obiang with sweeping powers, including the right to rule by decree, “effectively making his government a legal dictatorship”. It is known in Equatorial Guinea that Mr. Obiang under whose reign the country became a major petroleum-producing country, will be survived as president of the tiny nation by his son Teodora Nguema Obiang Mangue.

Mr. Teodora is the current vice president of the country and is notorious across Western capitals for his lavish spending even when many in Equatorial Guinea live below the poverty line. This will be a repeat of what happened in Gabon, where late President Omar Bongo who ruled for 42 (1967 - 2009) years was succeeded by his son, Ali Bongo.

Ali Bongo rose to power in 2009. He was reelected in 2016, in elections marred by numerous irregularities, arrests, human rights violations and post-election protests and violence. He defeated opposition challenger Jean Ping after a campaign marred by bloody clashes. Mr. Bongo suffered a stroke in Saudi Arabia in 2019 and only reappeared in public ten months after, walking with a stick as he attended ceremonies in the capital, Libreville. The 60-year-old, whose every move has been scrutinized for signs of ill health is expected to seek yet another mandate.

Congolese President, Mr. Nguesso occupies a fourth place on the global classification of longest-serving presidents. He is credited with 36 years, 343 days as of March 12, 2021. The calculation considers the years he ruled as president before being kicked out in 1992. Since he returned in 2002, Mr. Nguesso has taken all precautions to stay in power and he is expected to “win” reelection come March 21.

President Idriss Deby Itno, President of Tchad (C) Sahel Intelligence

To crown it all, Chadian President, Mr. Deby holds the seventh rank of the world’s longest-serving head of state, having been in power for 30 years, 100 days. With his reelection assured on April 11, Mr. Deby is certain to beat his own record and probably sail to yet another unenviable position on the tourney of world class dictators.

According to Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and several other international rights organizations, these presidents and their regimes are among the highest rights abuses in the world. Added to these poor human rights records is poverty and shouting infrastructure underdevelopment. According to an AMF country report N0. 15/308 of November 2015 the average per capita GDP in CEMAC has grown more modestly since the early 2000s compared to other Sub- Saharan African countries.

The said IMF report further indicates that a country disaggregation shows that the high average CEMAC per capita growth recorded in the late 1990s and early 2000s largely stems from the oil boom in Equatorial Guinea which started in the mid-1990s. CEMAC experienced a convergence process toward Sub-Saharan African countries’ income levels from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000’s when its average GDP per capita grew faster than in emerging markets. However, since 2005, and despite high oil prices until recently, the convergence process has stalled and poverty, marked by rampant corruption, mismanagement and embezzlement of public funds gained in intensity.

These ageing dictators and life presidents all appear to enjoy the support of France which sees in them a source of unconditional endorsement and implementation of their stifling imperialist policies in the subregion. Some French politicians are on record to have said they will do all it takes to install the sons of these “Kings” as presidents after them. The experiment has largely succeeded in Gabon where Ali Bongo remains in power despite his medical condition.