The news of Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni elevating his son to a position of considerable power hit the news with little more than a thud Tuesday morning. Given that Uganda is ostensibly a democracy, the appointment should cause worry — but Museveni has been chipping away at his country's democratic institutions for more than two decades.
President-elect Donald Trump, on the other hand, has yet to take control of the world's most famous democracy — one that often trumpets itself as democracy's protector and purveyor. But this week, Trump pulled a Museveni — or a Castro, Hussein, Mussolini or Erdogan, your choice. More on them and others in a bit. Trump's announcement was that he intends to appoint his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, as a senior White House adviser.
The appointment would run up against an anti-nepotism law passed under Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967. That law prohibits a government official from hiring family members to positions “in the agency in which he is serving or over which he exercises jurisdiction or control.” There are technicalities and loopholes in the law. The Kushner appointment, should it happen, will undoubtedly land all concerned parties in court.
Over at our sister blog The Fix, Aaron Blake interviewed Kathleen Clark, a government ethics expert from Washington University, about why democracies have anti-nepotism laws in the first place. Her answer is instructive:
We have anti-nepotism laws in the federal government and in lots of state governments because the practice of hiring relatives undermines public confidence that the government official is actually finding the best person for the job. What are the chances that the best person for the job just happens to be a relative, right? In addition to the problem of public confidence, hiring a relative also causes problems within the government organization. It can undermine the morale of government officials. It can cause confusion about what the lines of authority are; in other words, the relative may have a particular title, but many may perceive the relative’s role as even more important than the title would suggest. It may be very difficult to say no to the president’s son-in-law. It may be very difficult to say ‘That’s a bad idea’ to the president’s son-in-law, in a way it would be easier to say those things to someone whom the president hired but isn’t related to — someone who’s not the father of his grandchild or grandchildren.
One takeaway from Clark's answer is that nepotism implies that a leader has chosen not someone who is most competent, but someone who is most loyal, most invested in maintaining the family's position in power.
Perhaps that is why it isn't surprising that the list of leaders around the world who have appointed their sons or sons-in-law to positions reads like a who's who of authoritarianism.
Below is a sampling of “nepotists” past and present:
Raúl Castro: Luis Alberto Rodríguez López-Callejas is married to the daughter of Cuba's current president and has worked for his father-in-law for decades. He was put in charge of the business branch of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, an entity that controls almost all of Cuba's state-run economy. In 2014, he was elevated from colonel to brigadier general.
Hafez al-Assad: Bashar al-Assad's father, Hafez, spent three decades in power doing what he could to limit influence to a small group of acolytes who supported him and his family. When Hafez's eldest son, Bassel, died in a car crash in 1994, the grooming of Bashar began.
Hosni Mubarak: In 2000, long before Egypt's revolution, Hosni Mubarak appointed his younger son, Gamal, to the leadership of his National Democratic Party. Gamal's ascent took place just months before Bashar al-Assad's in Syria. Mubarak ended up holding on until his regime was toppled in 2011.
Saddam Hussein: Iraq's former dictator had two daughters who married brothers. One of the brothers, Hussein Kamel al-Majid, was elevated from being a guard in the Iraqi army to the official responsible for acquiring nuclear, chemical and biological weapons through the 1980s and early 1990s. Both he and his brother were slain by members of their extended family after defecting to Jordan in 1996. At the time, Saddam Hussein said he did not condone the killings.
Benito Mussolini, on the other hand, ordered the execution of his son-in-law Galeazzo Ciano, whom he had appointed as minister of press and propaganda, and later foreign minister during World War II.
Teodoro Obiang Nguema: Equatorial Guinea's president, the world's longest-serving leader, appointed his son as vice president in June. As I wrote at the time: “Power has been in the family for Equatorial Guinea's entire existence as an independent country. The current president toppled his uncle in a violent coup in 1979, before sentencing him to death by firing squad.”
Moammar Gaddafi: Saif al-Islam Gaddafi belonged to his father's small inner circle of advisers but made a show of declining an official position in Libya's government when it was offered. When his father, Moammar, was killed in 2011, Saif was the only member of the Gaddafi family still in Libya, and he was subsequently imprisoned and sentenced to death. His current whereabouts are not known.
Heydar Aliyev: By the time Heydar Aliyev died in 2003 after leading Azerbaijan for a decade, his son, Ilham, was already prime minister, vice chairman of the state-run oil company and deputy head of the ruling party. In three presidential elections, Ilham has yet to receive less than three-quarters of the vote.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan: The Turkish prime minister's son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, was appointed minister of natural resources and energy in 2015, after running a large holdings company with abundant oil interests.
Michel Aoun: Gebran Bassil had held ministerial positions for years before his father-in-law's ascent to the presidency of Lebanon. Bassil remains the foreign minister.