What you need to know:
- In Cameroon, Paul Biya, now 90, has been leading his country since November 1982 and is the oldest head of state in Africa.
- In East Africa, Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986, making him the fourth longest-serving African president.
When Namibian leader Hage Geingob died this week in office, the focus was once again on aging African leaders who cling to power even when ailing.
Geingob, a veteran of Namibia’s politics, was diagnosed with cancer in 2014 and passed on while undergoing treatment, joining a growing list of African leaders who never let go of the instruments of power.
For a record 33 years, Geingob had served as Namibia’s top politician (as President for eight years) and previously as Prime Minister for 15 years.
While he had been part of Namibia’s top leadership since 1990, he amassed $595 million (Sh1 billion) in wealth, a moderate figure by political standards.
But Geingob’s equivalents are doing much better (or worse). Despite democratic moves toward term limits, several African presidents have changed their constitutions to allow them to build political dynasties or hold on to power, signaling a growing political culture.
Within that political culture, some family dynasties have started to emerge as power stays within the family.
For instance, in the oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, the 91-year-old President, Teodoro Obiang, has appointed his eldest son, ‘Teodorin’ Nguema Obiang Mangue (born 1968), as the First Vice-President while another son, Gabriel Mbega Lima (born 1975), is the Minister of Finance, Economy, and Planning.
The Obiang dynasty is wealthy, and they have exploited the country’s mineral wealth to their advantage – and to the detriment of its 1.5 million people.
In 2010, Forbes magazine revealed that the elder Obiang had stashed $700 million of the country’s wealth in US bank accounts.
Also, millions of dollars in corrupt assets from the President’s son, ‘Teodorín’, valued at US$200 million, were seized in Brazil, France, Switzerland, and the United States.
Among these were 25 luxury cars, which were auctioned in Switzerland, and US$16.5 million in cash and luxury watches seized in Brazil. There was also a US$6-million mansion in the US, among other assets.
The eldest son, considered one of Africa’s most lavish spenders, was also convicted of embezzling millions of dollars and laundering the money in Paris and was given a suspended jail sentence. At one point in South Africa, he allegedly spent $1.5 million on a Lamborghini Murcielago and two Bentleys — a Mulliner and an Arnage T.
The family has further been the subject of international money-laundering investigations, and they symbolise Africa’s men of power and dynasties that embezzle the country’s wealth and neglect the country’s education and health sectors. One of Obiang’s sons owns a Gulfstream V Jet costing $35 million and an art collection worth millions of dollars.
In Togo, the Gnassingbe dynasty has dominated the country’s political terrain for more than 54 years. Founded by Etienne Gnassingbe Eyadema, who died on February 5, 2005, the dynasty is still in control after Eyadema’s eldest son, Faure Gnassingbe, succeeded his father in May 2005. The new constitution allows him to stay in power until 2030 in a country with a divided opposition.
When he died, the late Eyadema was described by The Guardian as “the last dinosaur among the dictators of Africa’s post-independence era.” But, it seems, he had managed to establish a personality cult that lived beyond him. In terms of wealth, the Eyadema’s control is $3 billion in foreign banks, according to media estimates.
Before the Bongo dynasty was deposed from Gabon in August last year, it had controlled the country’s politics since 1967. Over the years, the Bongos acquired multi-million-dollar luxury estates in France, including the famous Villa Saint-Ange.
In 2022, a French court held that the late Omar Bongo’s fortune came from embezzling public funds and kick-backs from oil companies. It is estimated that the Bongo family’s fortune is more than €85 million (Sh15 billion).
Transparency International estimated that Omar Bongo had 39 luxurious properties, 70 bank accounts, and at least nine luxury vehicles worth about US$2 million at their disposal.
The Sunday Times of London reported that, at one point, Omar Bongo bought a £308,823 Maybach for his wife, Edith, 44, while French oil giant Elf Aquitaine claimed to have paid Bongo £40m a year for a permit to extract oil.
In Cameroon, Paul Biya, now 90, has been leading his country since November 1982 and is the oldest head of state in Africa. His wealth is estimated at $250 Million (Sh37 billion), and he has an annual salary of $620,976 (Sh94 million), making him the highest-paid President in Africa at Sh7.8 million a month.
Biya’s family has been accused of corruption, and Biya’s son, Franck Biya, has started a campaign to succeed his father. Several pressure groups have emerged, all campaigning to have Franck succeed his father “for stability.”
When the French President visited Cameroon in July 2022, he was introduced to Franck Biya, regarded at the Etoudi Palace, the President’s seat, as a potential successor. Though previously running the family business, Franck is now stationed at Etoudi Palace as a political advisor to his father.
Franck and his mother, Chantal Biya, were listed by French media as among the sixty “dubious persons” with investments running into hundreds of millions of Euros. With such investments and wealth, the Biyas have been reported to be the wealthiest families in Africa.
Before he died, Jose Eduardo dos Santos did not distinguish between his wealth and the Treasury. With a personal fortune estimated to exceed more than $20 billion, dos Santos’s daughter, Isabel, is touted to be the world’s richest black woman.
In 2016, Isabel was appointed by her father as the chair of Sonangol, the Angolan state oil company. In 2017, her assets were seized by the new government, while in December 2023, Isabel lost a legal battle in London to stop a freeze on up to £580 million ($733 million) of her assets.
During the Angolan Civil War, dos Santos used the upheaval as an excuse to plunder the country’s oil wealth. When he started ailing, dos Santos strategized on how to leave his family in power. His children Isabel and José Filomeno dos Santos held key economic posts at Sonangol and the Fundo Soberano de Angola.
In East Africa, Yoweri Museveni has been in power since 1986, making him the fourth longest-serving African president. Museveni claims to be the least paid of African presidents. In powerplay, his son, Muhoozi Kaneirugaba, is a military general who also doubles in politics.
Museveni’s wife, Janet, is also a Cabinet minister. The focus has been on Muhoozi and the pressure groups in Uganda fronting him as Museveni’s successor.
Once hailed as a reformer, Museveni has entrenched his rule by abolishing the term limits initially set in the constitution to allow him to run for the presidency as long as possible.
Always frightened by the loss of power, Museveni had in 2003 admitted in a letter published by the Monitor that he and his family always go abroad for treatment as part of “our survival strategy in still hostile circumstances.”
With such paranoia, Museveni has hardly allowed alternative leaders to emerge within the National Resistance Movement, and the only alternative is Muhoozi.
Even after his death in 1997, Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko has always been an African poster boy on wealth, power, and mismanagement of today’s Democratic Republic of Congo.
During his three decades of autocratic rule, Mobutu never dreamt of leaving power and kept a vast fortune estimated at $4 billion. Mobutu not only plundered the treasury but even when he was ailing and with a challenge from rebels, he only escaped the country when the entire country was overrun.
His wealth came from mining kickbacks and channeling of money from the country’s coffers to his personal bank accounts.
Once backed by the CIA, he is known to have quipped: “I owe Zaire nothing, It’s Zaire that owes me everything”. He owned properties in Switzerland and Paris and had built a city for himself in his Gbadolite village with an international airport.
From Gbadolite airport, he boarded his last flight out of Zaire, first to Morocco and then to his French Riviera palatial home.
In Rwanda, Paul Kagame has established himself as a powerful figure and isn’t in a hurry to leave. In power since 2000, Kagame had previously been the most powerful force in Rwanda, having led the rebel army that stopped the Rwandese genocide.
In a country where political opposition is muted, Kagame has no challenger, and his focus is on the development of the Rwandan nation without the Hutu and Tutsi identities. But while doing so, he has also made it hard for any other politician to emerge.
In Eritrea, Isaias Afeworki has been in power since May 1993, and he joins the league of freedom fighters who cling to power.
A veteran of Eritrean war, Afeworki has been accused by a UN panel of human rights abuse. He does not allow multi-party democracy to thrive and his People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, is the sole political party.