Social Issues

Africa’s moral cancer

Caleb Onah chronicles the scourge of nepotism on the African continent.

Andrew Adéjàre had dedicated many years of his life to his job as a public servant in the State university. He was known for his commitment, dedication and innovative ideas which had greatly contributed to the department’s success. However, Adéjàre’s dedication was put to the test when a new head of the department was appointed over him.

This new head of department, Mr Avery, had strong political connections within the state government, particularly with the commissioner of Education and Vice-Chancellor. While rumours of nepotism and favouritism within the department were rife, Adéjàre believed that merit and hard work would prevail. Alas, this proved not to be the case. When I interviewed him earlier this year, he told me: “As time passed, I noticed that Mr Avery was favouring his relatives and close friends when it comes to promotions and important assignments within the department.”

Despite Adéjàre’s consistent excellent performance, he was repeatedly overlooked for promotions and challenging projects. Instead, these opportunities were handed to Mr Avery’s relatives and cronies, many of whom lacked the qualifications and experience Adéjàre possessed. Andrew couldn’t help but feel frustrated and demoralised. He knew that the principles of fairness and meritocracy were being compromised in the department. He decided to voice his concerns to the higher authorities within the state government, hoping that they would intervene and restore justice.

However, the political influence of Mr Avery and his connections proved to be stronger than Adéjàre’s plea for fairness. The authorities turned a blind eye to the nepotism and favouritism which had crept into Benue State University. Adéjàre’s efforts to seek justice were in vain, and he began to lose hope.

And then: “One day, I received a letter informing me of my termination from the department. It cited ‘restructuring’ as the reason for the dismissal, but I knew the truth.” He had lost his job and the injustice weighed heavily on his heart. 

If only Adéjàre’s predicament was an isolated one in Africa. But unfortunately this is not the case.

Nepotism is a widespread vice in the continent which curtails development by ensuring that power and money remain among few members or groups.

Nepotism’s detrimental impact is glaringly evident within our institutions, both academic and non-academic, where individuals lacking the requisite qualifications occupy positions of authority, resulting in the erosion of institutional effectiveness. An unfortunate consequence of this nepotistic environment is the presence of unqualified personnel overseeing critical areas such as national security, the criminal justice system, and defence. 

These individuals often secure their roles not through merit but through personal connections and bribery, leaving taxpayers to bear the brunt of their ineptitude. Investigations into criminal activities routinely suffer from mishandling, and countless cases collapse in court due to the incompetence of these officers. Consequently, thousands of families are denied the justice they rightfully seek. 

A striking illustration of this phenomenon occurred in the Democratic Republic of Congo during Joseph Kabila’s 18-year presidency. Despite the lengthy tenure, substantive progress in education, poverty alleviation, and security remained elusive. However, Kabila’s family managed to amass a substantial business empire, boasting over 80 companies and control over tens of millions of dollars’ worth of state assets. Notably, Kabila’s siblings, including Zoé and Jaynet, emerged as influential figures in the nation’s mining, telecommunications, and other sectors. 

Across the border in Angola, a similar pattern unfolded during José Eduardo dos Santos’ leadership. The “Luanda Leaks” series by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists revealed how dos Santos’ daughter, Isabel, capitalised on her father’s nearly four-decade rule to become the wealthiest woman in Africa.

In a country where the gross domestic product per capita struggles to surpass $3,500, Isabel dos Santos managed to amass an estimated $2 billion fortune, primarily by acquiring significant stakes in Angola’s oil industry, diamond sector, and telecommunications infrastructure, all facilitated by her father’s government. 

Even in African nations renowned for ‘transparency,’ nepotism remains an ingrained issue.

In Botswana, often hailed as the continent’s ‘least corrupt’ country and a beacon of hope for anti-corruption efforts, nepotism and patronage networks persist within the public sector. Notably, former President Ian Khama appointed his brother Tshekedi as the minister of wildlife, environment, and tourism, while his cousin Ramadeluka Seretse assumed roles as the minister of defence and justice. Several other relatives and childhood friends also secured government positions or lucrative contracts through these connections.

The prevalence of nepotism has also led to significant conflicts within the bureaucratic landscape of Botswana, as is exemplified by the 2018 showdown within the Botswana Energy Regulatory Authority (BERA) concerning the suspension of its Chief Operations Officer, Duncan Morotsi. 

The BERA board initiated Morotsi’s suspension due to allegations of improper hiring practices, while the agency’s CEO, Rose Seretse, who also happens to be a relative through marriage to former President Ian Khama, supported Morotsi and allowed him to disregard the suspension. This turmoil eventually culminated in the dissolution of the BERA board. Nevertheless, the bureaucratic discord persists, with former Minister Sadique Kebonang accusing Rose Seretse and her deputy, Duncan Morotsi, of misconduct, including the misuse of government resources and tax evasion. In response to these allegations, Seretse took the drastic step of dismissing BERA’s accounting staff for speaking to the media.

Turning our attention to Malawi, President Lazarus Chakwera has faced intense scrutiny for appointing his daughter, Violet Chakwera Mwasinga, as Third Secretary at Malawi’s embassy in Brussels, despite his campaign pledge in 2020 to eradicate nepotism, which he criticised as a hallmark of his predecessor Peter Mutharika’s regime. 

This decision has led to the circulation of images, speeches, and newspaper clippings on social media showcasing the president’s prior condemnations of nepotism. Notwithstanding the widespread outrage surrounding this appointment, President Chakwera has staunchly defended his daughter’s nomination, asserting that it was based on her qualifications and completing the necessary procedures correctly.

Brian Banda, the State House Press Officer, emphasised that Chakwera had made over 2,000 appointments and deemed it unfair to judge the entire administration based solely on this single appointment. Banda argued that Violet is well-qualified and capable of performing the duties of the position. 

The president has also made other appointments, including the selection of three renowned human rights advocates among 40 recently nominated Deputy High Commissioners, Ambassadors, and diplomats. These appointments come in the wake of a diplomatic controversy involving employees from the Malawian Embassy in South Africa accused of participating in the illicit trade of alcohol using diplomatic privileges. 

Nepotism’s detrimental effects on African nations are multifaceted. It leads to the misallocation of public resources and diminishes the efficiency of the public sector, eroding public trust in the government. Moreover, it undermines the pillars of state security and defence and reduces society’s resilience to face modern challenges. By concentrating power and wealth among a select few or specific groups, nepotism stifles economic growth, erodes the government’s legitimacy, and jeopardises the overall security and well-being of the population. 

Recent history offers several examples of political upheaval associated with nepotism and favouritism. In Zimbabwe, President Robert Mugabe’s dismissal of his Vice-President, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who enjoyed support from war veterans, led to a military intervention in 2017, resulting in Mugabe’s resignation. But the root cause of this unrest was nepotism as Mugabe had favoured his wife Grace Mugabe over the more qualified Mnangagwa as they vied to be Mugabe’s successor.

Following a contentious election on August 23, 2023, which saw Mnangagwa’s return to power, the circle continued with the potential establishment of a family dynasty. Shortly after bestowing an honorary doctorate upon his wife, Mnangagwa made a noteworthy move by appointing his son to a significant government position within a week. In his cabinet announcement post-election, Mnangagwa disclosed that his younger son, David Kudakwashe Mnangagwa, would assume the role of Deputy Finance Minister.

Additionally, a nephew by the name of Tongai Mafidhi Mnangagwa was appointed as the Deputy Minister in the Tourism Ministry. David Kudakwashe Mnangagwa, aged 34, lacks prior governmental experience but brings a background as an actuary and previous board membership at a bank. His appointment as Deputy Finance Minister means he will be assisting Mhuli Ncube, who was reinstated despite losing his parliamentary seat in the recent polls. His entry into parliament was facilitated through a youth quota initiative designed to bolster the representation of young individuals, with members being selected and handpicked by their respective political parties.

Similarly and back in time, President Avery Boubacar Keïta’s practice of favouritism in Mali led to a mutiny within the country’s armed forces in 2020, escalating into a full-fledged coup d’état, which eventually resulted in his detention and subsequent resignation. 

The recurrence of such incidents underscores the urgency of addressing nepotism in Africa. In many countries characterised by diverse ethnic groups, nepotism can exacerbate divisions, undermining national unity and prioritising loyalty to specific subgroups, such as ethnic or regional affiliations, over the broader national interest.

Only by vigorously combatting nepotism will African nations ensure that hiring decisions are based on merit rather than personal connections. By doing so, they can work towards a fairer, more transparent, and effective governance system that benefits all citizens.

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Caleb Onah is a lifelong book fanatic, writer, and researcher, and has written for a variety of publications. He studied Psychology at the Benue State University, Nigeria. As a disciplined, committed, self-motivated, behavioural scientist and trained mental health counsellor, he helps quite a number of individuals and groups overcome their mental health challenges and discover a perspective about themselves. He divides his time between writing, and providing psychosocial support.

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