The introduction of President Paul Kagame’s daughter Ange Ingabire Kagame to the rest of the world — on the White House red carpet and in that now iconic portrait with the US first couple — captured mainstream and social media attention in the region and to those with interest in Rwanda.
Regardless of what informed the decision by the president to be accompanied by his daughter, it is obvious that it had impact; probably unexpected but laden with meaning beyond her physical attributes.
To most Rwandans, the photogenic Kagame children were first introduced to the public in the last presidential elections as they accompanied their father in his campaigns around the country. Now, the first daughter’s public appearance was followed up with an interview in a pro-regime publication!
Grownup children of rulers in some African countries, especially in what is considered non-democracies, hold both formal and informal power and influence.
In countries considered authoritarian or the military dictatorships that replaced several independence leaders, first sons were a menacing presence.
In Uganda, Taban Amin is remembered for his cruelty to students at the then only university, Makerere. Kongolo Mobutu took over control of his father’s praetorian guard and was a symbol of the viciousness of the regime in its dying days. The Gaddafi sons story is still fresh with three of them biting the bullet as the tyrant came to an ignominious end.
Raw power versus influence
Jean Pierre Habyarimana, one of former president Juvenal Habyarimana’s sons is alleged to have held sway in his father’s regime, building a strong relationship with French elite through Jean Christophe Mitterrand the son of former French leader Francois Mitterrand. Mostly, this was a generation of first sons who used their position to enforce and display raw power.
In most of these cases, the end was not pleasant. Swept away by the winds of change, some languished in exile. Others like the Gaddafi sons were killed or jailed.
It is for this, among other reasons, that people take notice when the children of their political leaders emerge from the shadows and become a visible presence, regardless of their career choices.
Their actions at times give insight into regime psychology and character. The hedonistic, cruel and erratic behaviour of Uday Hussein, the notorious son of Saddam Hussein was an indicator of the excesses and rot that was Saddam’s Iraq. Same with the case of Teodorin Nguema Mangue, of Equatorial Guinea.
However, in recent years, in a number of African countries we have seen a change in how children of the ruling families have exercised their power and influence and somehow influenced how their father’s rule is viewed, at least abroad.
Some are subtle — tactful in what they do. Instead of employing and displaying raw power, they are charming their way through seemingly legitimate business and charity work.
Isabel Dos Santos, the erudite billionaire daughter of Angola’s long serving President Jose Eduardo Dos Santos comes to mind. She has through display of intellect and business acumen indicated that there is more than just being born in the African ruling family and just enjoying the privilege.
Forbes ranks her as the first African woman billionaire. An engineering graduate from Kings College London, without doubt, she has the good fortune of her birth as the anchor of her success. But when she speaks, her intellectual grounding is always on display.
Multi-lingual and eloquent, she has given a humane face to a regime and a ruling family that has stayed put for far too long. Her excessive wealth in a resource rich but poverty stricken nation is easily forgotten and her father sanitised, when she engages the public.
Women are taking a central role in political dynasties. Grace Mugabe and others are foraying into what was previously reserved for the males.
Talk of Girl Power as a new soft power, which seems more effective these days.
Men like Uhuru Kenyatta in Kenya and Ian Khama of Botswana owe their rise partly to their family heritage. But the way their fathers exited the political stage, guaranteed them an independent and reasonable chance to make a shot at the top office and succeed many years after the demise of the patriarch.
There is clear evidence of the emergence of political dynasties. There is Kabila, Bongo, Eyadema and others being prepared, most of them cosmopolitan in outlook.
Public role preparation?
When Rwanda’s first son Ivan Cyomoro enlisted at West Point, the leading US military academy that has prepared many for leadership in the army, business and politics, it was perceived as an indicator that Kagame approved of a public role for him. As some of the first children start a life in the glare of the public, they will be open to scrutiny.
It comes as the centre of influence shifts too.
The old generation of the RPF founding leaders and bush war fighters is losing position and influence, both in politics and the army.
In other countries, that share the history of liberation movements, we can discern a pattern where the influence of the comrades in the struggle is replaced with a young generation, mostly woven around the first sons and daughters.
How it pans out in Rwanda, will probably, be more clear depending on whether Kagame leaves or stays in power beyond 2017.
Frank Kagabo is a journalist based in London, the United Kingdom. E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: @kagabo