Just about two weeks ago, former African Union Commission chairman Jean Ping, from Gabon, was in the news after a lengthy period of lying low following his loss of the AU position to incumbent chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 2012.
So what was the great deal this time around? Well, nothing much, except that the former AU supremo was speaking at a conference organised by Gabon’s opposition supporters. During the occasion, Ping went out of his way to announce to all and sundry that he had severed ties with the current regime in Libreville. “It’s very clear that I have nothing to do with the current authorities,” Mr Ping reportedly said when he spoke in Libreville, the first time he went public since the end of his AU term, which ran from 2008 to 2012.
In the meantime, it has been rumoured that Ping’s joining the Gabonese opposition was a sign that he was angling for the presidency come the next presidential elections in 2016, a suggestion he has so far not denied.
That regime, alas, is currently headed by none other than President Ali Bongo Ondimba, rumoured to be Ping’s brother-in-law following persistent reports that Ping married the eldest daughter of the late President Omar Bongo, with whom he has two children. He later married an Ivorian and is now a father of eight.
Before landing the top AU job in 2008, Ping was a high-level world-class diplomat who was viewed as very close to the senior Bongo, his alleged father-in-law who was reputedly the world’s longest serving non-monarch ruler.
As a result of that closeness, Ping was a top politician in Gabon and held a series of ministerial portfolios, including information, foreign affairs and mines, before finally becoming deputy prime minister in 2007.
The son of an immigrant Chinese trader who married a Gabonese woman, Ping’s Asian ancestry has earned him the nickname “Mao”, and he was instrumental in cementing ties between Africa and his ancestral China. At ease in English and French, he is very well educated and has a doctorate in economics from France’s prestigious Sorbonne University, and for some years was an international civil servant for the Paris-based Unesco.
Not surprisingly, his kinship ties with the late Omar Bongo were widely viewed as the key that opened doors for him to bulldoze his way to the highest echelons of Gabonese, African and even global politics.
After his erstwhile father-in-law’s death, it was rumoured that Ping harboured ambitions to rise to the Gabonese presidency, pitting him against his own brother-in-law, whose current regime he is now distancing himself from.
Kinship factors are a stark aspect of the power game in Francophone African politics though, and often transcend borders, so that rulers in the Francophone countries are more or less an expansive — if often rather amorphous — family. Ever striving to establish new links between their countries, some Francophone presidents have taken dynasty building to new heights.
The late Omar Bongo, for instance, had a close relationship with Denis Sassou-Nguesso, the president of the neighbouring Republic of Congo. The wily Sassou-Nguesso had in fact given him his daughter, Edith Lucie Bongo, to become his second wife. Married to the senior Bongo on August 4, 1990, the event was viewed as “an example of cooperation between the two countries.”
Not a lowly village damsel by any standards, Édith Bongo was a medical doctor by education, specialised as a paediatrician, and was known for her focus on fighting the spread of HIV/Aids.
While serving as the First Lady of Gabon between August 4, 1990 and March 14, 2009, she helped create a forum for African first ladies to fight the Aids pandemic, and also founded associations for vulnerable children and people with disabilities.
When she died on March 14, 2009, just four days after her 45th birthday, the nature of the illness that had claimed her life was not disclosed, despite the fact that she had earlier been hospitalised in Rabat, Morocco.
A nationally televised state funeral was however held for her in Libreville, and her remains were taken to Edu, her father’s home village in northern Congo for a traditional burial ceremony.
The ceremony was attended by the crème de la crème of West and Central African politicians, including president Bongo, dad Denis Sassou-Nguesso and the presidents of Benin, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea and Togo.
Following the death of his First Lady, it was announced on Gabonese television on May 6, 2009 that Omar Bongo was “temporarily suspending his activities” as president in order to “regain strength and rest”. The formal announcement further stressed that President Bongo had been deeply affected by the illness and death of his wife.
Bongo himself died a month later at a clinic in Barcelona, Spain, on June 8, 2009, nearly three months after the death of Edith. The kinship links between Sassou-Nguesso and the senior Bongo were not an unusual occurrence in Francophone countries though. In fact Sassou-Nguesso appears to be an unusually convivial neighbour who has been very generous in betrothing his daughters to neighbouring heads of state.
For instance, another daughter, Sandrine Nguesso, is said to have at one time or another been married to President Joseph Kabila of the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo. With two powerful sons-in-law in the central African region, Sassou-Nguesso in his heyday must have been quite influential during regional meetings.
Similar betrothals have taken place in the Francophone region over the years, and appear to be a particularly adroit way of consolidating power and cementing cross-border ties. President Blaise Compaoré of Burkina Faso, for instance, was married, and still is, to Chantal Compaoré, the daughter of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, the late mercurial president of Côte d’Ivoire.
Matrimonial ties are, however, not the only factor in dynasty building and the systematic consolidation of power in Francophone Africa. Filial ties are also important when it comes to handing over power in the region. In Gabon itself, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the late Omar Bongo would be succeeded as president by one of his sons.
It was therefore not surprising when current president Ali Bongo Ondimba inherited the reins of power from his father despite massive opposition protests. The phenomenon of father-to-son power inheritance was also replicated in Togo, where in 2005 Fauré Gnassingbé inherited power from his father, the late Gnassingbé Eyadema. Kpatcha Gnassingbé, another son of the late president, was then installed as the minister of defence, presumably to ensure the family stranglehold was maintained.
It was therefore hardly surprising that in 2001 Joseph Kabila ascended to the presidency of the Democratic Republic of the Congo after the death of his father, Laurent-Désiré Kabila. Earlier in the same country, Nzanga Mobutu was said to have been seriously angling for the presidency after the death of his father, Mobutu Sese Seko, who had ruled the country from 1965 and firmly held onto power until his death in 1997.
Nzanga ended up serving as the Deputy Prime Minister, between 2008 and 2011, and as the leader of the Union of Mobutist Democrats.
Those familial aspects of power transfer in Francophone Africa aside, the region has more or less perfected the art of keeping power in the family. In Burkina Faso, for instance, President Compaoré, who has been in power since 1987, has surrounded himself with his kith and kin, with key government positions being held by relatives.
For instance, his brother François Compaoré is his economic adviser, while other relatives also hold important positions, as is the case with Simon Compaoré, who is the mayor of Ouagadougou, the capital city, and Jean-Marie Compaoré, who is the archbishop of Burkina Faso.
Other relatives include Jean-Baptiste Compaoré, the Finance minister, while motley other relatives have also been rewarded with important positions.
In Gabon itself, the distribution of political positions certainly proves the old adage that blood is thicker than water. Apart from a Bongo son inheriting power from his father, Pascaline Bongo Ondimba, a daughter of the late Omar Bongo, is currently serving as her own brother’s Presidential Cabinet director.
To further consolidate the family’s hold on power, Pascaline’s husband, one Paul Toungui, is the country’s Foreign minister.
Across in the Republic of Congo, the Sassou-Nguesso family — direct and extended — firmly holds sway in political circles. Emmanuel Yoka, an uncle of the president, is, for instance, the country’s Cabinet chief, while a nephew of the president, one Jean-Dominique Okemba, is in charge of the national Security Council. Yet another nephew, Edgar Nguesso, is the “director of estate”. Hilaire Moko, another nephew, is the director of government security.
The list goes on, so that major state functions in that country are practically family gatherings, a phenomenon widespread in Francophone countries. In fact, while political dynasties are widespread phenomena elsewhere in Africa — including closer home — and in the world at large, in Francophone African countries they have become practically a way of life.