Like father, like son?


WASHINGTON — In early 2009, a chubby young man from suburban Florida, infatuated with girls and hip-hop music, was sentenced to 97 years in prison for the torture of Africans half a world away from the United States.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, "Chuckie" Taylor and his associates engaged in "burning victims with molten plastic, lit cigarettes, scalding water, candle wax and an iron; severely beating victims with firearms; cutting and stabbing victims; and shocking victims with an electric device."

In a very real sense, the 31-year-old Taylor was following in the bloody footsteps of his notorious father, the Liberia's violent former dictator Charles Taylor, himself facing a life behind bars because of his current trial at the International Criminal Court in The Hague for war crimes and other atrocities. Brutal though he was, the young Taylor is far from the only male offspring to model his behavior on that of an infamous father. Call it "Sociopathic Son Syndrome" or SSS for short.

This past December, another West African strongman, Guinea's Lansana Conte, passed away after a long illness and for a time there was real fear among the Guinean people that he would be succeeded by his son, Ousmane, who made a name for himself by shooting down peaceful protesters in the streets of the capital city two years ago. After some gentle prompting by Guinea's new military government, Conte fils appeared on national television to contritely confess to involvement in the cocaine trade.

Smuggling, of drugs or other contraband, is apparently the occupation of choice for SSS sufferers. Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic's son Marco has been accused of heading a multi-million dollar, black market cigarette ring, while one of Zaire's (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) Mobutu boys, Kongulu (known as "Saddam"), was reported to have been involved in illegally running gold out of his country. Saddam Mobutu, who also served as one of his father's more brutal enforcers, died at age 28, in exile in Monaco, certainly a much more civilized end that that of the two son's of the original Saddam Hussein — Uday and Qusay — who perished in a hail of bullets courtesy of the U.S. army.

The list goes on and represents every geographical region: "Bong Bong", the son of Philippines autocrat Ferdinand Marcos, was sentenced to nine years imprisonment for tax evasion (although he never served a day); Haiti's "Baby Doc" Duvalier, the son of "Papa Doc", remains a relatively comfortable refugee in Paris, twenty-two years after he and his avaricious wife fled the country amid accusations of corruption and torture; and one of Libyan leader Gaddafi's sons, nicknamed "Hannibal", is constantly in trouble with the law, most recently in Switzerland for allegedly beating his domestic staff.

Dynastic degeneracy is common in Latin America as well, although curiously, on the continent that perfected the culture of "machismo", two Argentinean leaders, Juan Peron and Nestor Kirchner chose to pass the torch to their wives.

Not all sons have turned out badly. The royal rulers of Jordan, Morocco and Qatar, for example, have thus far governed in a skillful and relatively enlightened manner. Unfortunately, elsewhere, in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Syria, the best that can be said is that the presidential sons in power are slightly less bad than the fathers they succeeded.

Worryingly, in Egypt, Libya and Yemen, there are sons waiting in the wings who have not impressed observers and who may very well prove less effective and less democratic than their progenitors.

Despite the United States' periodic flirtation with families like the Kennedys and the Bushes, the Western world has, in modern times, largely steered clear of this phenomenon. Instead it has placed its faith in institutions: political parties, bureaucracies, courts, trade unions, media outlets etc. These establishments, while certainly not free from venality and incompetence, tend to avoid the outright brutality and corruption that characterize most family affairs. As developing nations struggle with advancing democratic practices, they would do well to avoid patrimonial politics and invest in institutional development.

Christian Hennemeyer has lived and worked in Africa for more than 20 years. He has also worked the Caribbean, the Balkans and the Middle East. He currently lives in Washington, D.C.