Peter Mutharika took up the instruments of state power from outgoing Malawi President Joyce Banda on Monday, breathing new life into the African power dynasty.
Mutharika is the younger brother of Bingu wa Mutharika who died in office in 2012. His speedy ascent to the top – he only joined active politics in 2009 – would appear to feed the narrative that proximity to power through kinship is a useful ingredient for the growing list of African dynastic standard-bearers.
Mutharika is also a highly qualified law professor; educated in the United Kingdom and the United States, he has spent an inordinate amount of time abroad, adding to the little-noticed trend that nearly all African leaders who are beneficiaries of dynasty politics have been educated abroad.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya’s founding father Jomo Kenyatta, edged out rival Raila Odinga in a closely contested election in March last year. Kenyatta studied political science at Amherst College in Massachusetts in the US before returning to Kenya where he would launch his first unsuccessful stab at the presidency in 2002.
Odinga, the son of opposition luminary and the country’s first vice-president Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, holds a postgraduate degree in mechanical engineering, obtained during eight years of study in the former East Germany.
Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila was re-elected for a second term in December 2011, edging out veteran opposition candidate Étienne Tshisekedi, the first Congolese to obtain a doctorate diploma in law.
Appetite for foreign institutions
It is not a recent trend: the pioneer dynasty class that took over from relatives, many of them founding fathers, also exhibited this appetite for foreign institutions.
Gabon President Ali Bongo Ondimba, the son of Omar Bongo, who headed the country for 41 years, was educated in France from the age of nine, where he graduated from the Sorbonne with a PhD in law.
Another graduate of the famous University of Paris was President Faure Essozimna Gnassingbé, one of the many children of former Togo president Gnassingbé Eyadéma but who beat his other siblings to succeed his father. Faure was not content with his first degree, later obtaining an MBA from the George Washington University in the US.
Botswana President Ian Khama, a qualified pilot and the first-born son of independence leader Sir Seretse Khama, studied at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, which trains all British Army officers.
The pattern has its roots in colonial times. Despite the deep nationalism that accompanied the attainment of independence for many colonies, their leaders retained an admiration for many things Western, including education, more for the prestige but also an indictment of the standards of existing institutions.
Many of this pan-Africanist generation were themselves Western educated, from Jomo Kenyatta to Kwame Nkrumah and Hastings Kamuzu Banda.
The need to “expose” their kin to the world in preparation for leadership roles also cannot be discounted, where as a bonus they see close up the workings of “finger-wagging” donor countries in preparation for future governance jousts.
The arrangement has also had benefits for former colonial masters, such as France, which are able to count on the support of those of its graduates who attain power as they seek to retain the spheres of influence.
For others, mainly long-term veteran leaders, the idea of turning over power to outsiders is simply anathema. But aware of the potential backlash of simply foisting their kin on voters, many have invested in educating them exceedingly well, to make them an easier sell.
Lee Mwiti is deputy editor of Mail & Guardian Africa.