When constitutions are mutilated after death of Africa’s strongmen

Sunday April 25 2021

President Idriss Deby Itno (L) and his son Maj Gen Mahamat ibn Idriss. PHOTOS | FILE | AFP

By Isaac Mufumba

On Wednesday morning it was announced that Gen Mahamat Idriss Deby, 37, son of Chad’s slain leader Idriss Deby, had been named transitional leader.

According to the charter that announced the development, Gen Mahamat will be head of a military council of 15 generals who have been loyal to his father. He will “occupy the functions of the president of the republic” and also serve as head of the armed forces.

Constitution of Chad
The constitution of Chad provides that “in the absence of the president or in case he dies, the speaker of parliament takes charge of the country for 40 days” to set in place a transition until elections are held. But the Generals disagreed.

The Generals were only following in a pattern that has often repeated itself whenever the dictates of the constitution have been in conflict with the wishes of the men in uniform. The military simply announced that both the legislature and the constitution had been dissolved.

The events in Chad meant that young Deby, who had as head of the elite presidential guard overseen the security of his father and often appeared alongside him, has now become the latest addition to a list of three leaders that became president upon the demise of their fathers.

In two of the cases, Togo and Gabon, the presidents died of natural causes, but in the other – DR Congo where the president’s son was a General holding a senior command position – the sitting president was killed, under unclear circumstances.


The first case of direct succession was in Togo where Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé, succeeded his father and long-time leader, Gnassingbé Eyadéma, who died in February 2005.

The constitution of Togo provides that the speaker of the national assembly takes charge in such an event, but the military had other ideas.
First, they concealed the news of the death of the president, sent the speaker of the national assembly on an impromptu foreign trip before running roughshod over the law.
They installed the Sorbonne and George Washington university graduate of Economics and International Relations and later Business Administration as president amid what was widely viewed as a military coup.

Amid widespread condemnation both locally and internationally, Faure, who had been involved in the management of his family’s vast wealth and also served as his father’s advisor on matters finance before joining politics as a Member of Parliament on the ticket of the ruling Rally of the Togolese People (RPT) in June 2002, agreed to step down to allow for elections.

The man who also served as minister of Telecommunications, Mines and Equipment in his father’s cabinet easily won the April 2005 elections, but the victory was greeted with protests that left hundreds dead and scores injured.

He won re-election in April 2015 and on February 22, 2020, but with the constitution having been amended in 1999 to reinstate the two-term limit for president, but without a retroactive clause that would have barred him from contesting, he will be able to contest for another five-year term in 2025.

Ali Bongo was appointed to various key positions in government, which was deemed to be a sign that the man who joined the Gabonese Democratic Party (PDG) in 1981 and quickly rose through the ranks to become a member of the party’s political bureau before being appointed to the cabinet was being groomed to become president.

He was elected to the national assembly during the 1990 elections and was named minister for National Defence following his re-election to parliament in December 1996. He was also re-elected as vice president of PDG in September 2008.

Upon his father’s death on June 8, 2009, Bongo became the candidate for PDG in an election organised by the head of the senate, Rose Francine Rogombé, in line with provisions of Gabon’s constitution.

He came across to many a Gabonese as a “hip hop star” and a “spoilt child, born in Congo-Brazzaville, brought up in France” who could hardly speak any of the indigenous languages, but overcame that to emerge victorious in the August 30, 2009, election which was greeted with riots that left scores dead and others injured.
Ali Bongo was re-elected in 2016, but survived a coup attempt on January 7, 2019.

Joseph Kabila had gone to school in Tanzania and undergone military training in Rwanda before joining his father in the fight to oust Mobutu Sese Seko. After the war, he was sent for further military training in China where he still was in 1998 when the Congo fell out with former allies Rwanda and Uganda who had helped Kabila rise to power.
The fighting between Congo and its former allies were still on when he returned to Congo, was promoted to the rank of Maj Gen and placed in charge of the army.
At the time of his father’s assassination, he was living in a military unit with his girlfriend and daughter, but that changed on January 27, 2001, when parliament unanimously elected him to become president at the age of 29.

Little is known about the circumstances under which he succeed his father. Some believe that he was handpicked by his father’s inner circle because he did not pose any serious threat to their own designs and ambitions, while others believe that he was deemed to be a compromise candidate given that he was not aligned to any of the groups that were jostling for power.

Kabila presided over reforms that led to a return to multiparty democracy and won two elective terms that expired in 2016. Elections to find his successor were delayed until December 2018 which paved way for him to hand over office to Felix Tshisekedi in January 2019.

Different paths
Two of those who succeeded their fathers, Faure and Bongo, remain in office with the latter likely to leave earlier on account of his poor health and the provisions of the constitution of Gabon.
Mr Bongo is, however, likely to be joining another of his kind, Joseph Kabila, as a former president living it large with the civilians.

As for the fourth of their kind, Gen Mahamat Idriss Deby, whose prowess in the face of the enemy was there for all to see played a big role in the defeat of rebels led by his cousin Timan Erdimi at Am-Dam in 2009, it is still very early days.