Power Succession in Africa

Power successions in pre-colonial African societies were, traditionally and for the most part, always a direct bloodline affair and mostly intense events shrouded in secrecy, and sometimes involved violent rivalries; moreover when the succession was triggered by a sudden death of the reigning power.

In the event of a sudden death of a reigning power, and where the [natural] next to the throne was a minor and/or had immediate rivalries; this would, in most cases, likely cause internal succession and power struggles – some, if not in fact, most, violent and bloody. Rivalries would ensue from and among a long list of potential successors either with an immediate and direct relation/connection to the deceased power holder. Or among those who constituted the ruling circle who, under whatever pretext, felt they had a legitimate claim to power, i.e, to the top position of power in their society.

Conscious of the divisive power of such internal power struggles and their potentially destructive effects in the wider society; which had potential to cause a much bigger threat to the power structure – senior and influential players in the social power structure, who usually played the role of power brokers, would ensure the death of the reigning power (holder) is kept (a top) secret. While keeping a tight lid on the death of the reigning power (holder); they would likewise move fast to ensure they keep a tight lid on the ongoing internal succession and power struggles. This would allow the senior and influential power brokers in the social power structure, time to manage the internal succession and power struggles until a successor was finally agreed upon and approved and/or elected. This was a long and winded process that involved negotiations, compromises and all the relevant power dynamics.

Only after the successor had been approved internally by the power brokers (committee) and ready to be handed the mantle of power, would the death of the reigning power (holder) be announced to the public in a sombre mood. The death announcement would be made by the most senior figure among the senior and influential committee of power brokers while intentionally feigning a ‘sudden‘ passing of the reigning power (holder); who, during his reign, would have carefully cultivated and projected an image and the aura of an ‘immortal‘ and ‘eternal‘ ‘Great and Dear Leader’.

Importantly, however, the death announcement would be made simultaneously with the announcement of the successor to power, to avoid and remove creating a potentially dangerous impression in the public (society) of a power vacuum. It was also a careful execution to create and project the impression, at least, in the eyes and minds of the unsuspecting public (society), of a seamless transition of power.

These power succession dynamics are not unique to pre-colonial African societies alone; they were much a common occurrence in other societies across the world. The practice has not changed much in modern times. The politics of power successions is much the same, perhaps with a little sophistication, here and there, with the help of modern tools and technology that permit an environment of camouflage.

Political succession in modern African societies that are more or less a hybrid of monarchical and republican systems, with heads of State/government who exhibit and hence rule with tendencies of a monarch and a president – henceforth called “PresiKings“; power succession is a direct bloodline affair, i.e, much a family affair, especially in the absence of war and violent internal struggles within the ruling circle.

In the event of a sudden death of a PresiKing; or the PresiKing is severely incapacitated and is no longer able to execute – and capable of executing – his duties; the common tendency and therefore practice, is naturally for the PresiKing’s eldest son, rarely daughters, to immediately, although through some ceremonial rituals, occupy the vacancy and come to power and carry on the family business as it were before the death (or incapacitation) of the PresiKing: the departed, ironically, ‘immortal‘ and ‘eternal‘ ‘Great and Dear Leader’.

This is usually organised and executed by those – the inner circle of trusted aides – closest to the PresiKing who are, and have been privileged beneficiaries of the PresiKing’s reign, mostly of and through terror, who are usually notorious executors of the PresiKing’s orders, wishes; and sometimes their own imaginations and guesses of the PresiKing‘s intentions. They compete, amongst themselves, for the PresiKing‘s attention and preferential treatment; and as such, they are willing to – and do – engage in behaviour and activities that make them commit the most heinous acts against their own people, without regard to the underlying consequences on their own lives and the future of their (family) relations.

Because they are the principal beneficiaries, they, understandably, have vested interests and therefore are primarily motivated by preserving the status-quo. By electing and/or installing the PresiKing’s next of kin – usually the eldest son as has widely been the accepted tradition in much of African societies – to power, they are preserving their own individual interests. They act in self-interest, rarely in public interest, and where and when they appear to do so; it’s because it serves and helps to consolidate their interests.

This is done, and usually accomplished, with a great deal of internal power manipulations, at times involving mysterious deaths of those suspected of posing threats to the succession by questioning its validity or in form of outright opposition. They are well aware of the fact that they are preserving and serving the most corrupt, and almost inevitably, brutal system; but they rationalise their behaviour and actions with “it may be evil, corrupt, brutal, but it is our system. It serves us well“.

There are plenty of examples in Africa of where and when a (sudden) death of the reigning power brought in their (eldest) sons such as the death (by assassination) of President Laurent – Désiré Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo which saw his son Joseph Kabila Kabange (seamlessly, on the surface, of course, and to the unsuspecting and easily gullible eyes of the public) succeed him.

Ali Bongo Ondimba, the present President Gabon, who is said to have suffered a severe stroke on a visit to Saudi Arabia, that left him severely and physically incapacitated; succeeded his father Omar Bongo, who had been President from 1967 until his death in 2009.


Political power, particularly the governance of national affairs, is treated more or less, as a family affair/business where leadership succession has to be – and therefore, for the most part, is passed on, from one family member to another, in much of Sub-Saharan Africa; a practice that perpetuates misrule and widespread impunity.