Jacob Zuma’s Imprisonment & Lessons for Nigerian Leaders
The 15-month jail sentence of former South African President, Jacob Zuma, for defying an order by the country’s constitutional court to appear at a corruption inquiry while he was president, to say the least, offers a good illustration of the principle that power is transient and the powerful not only hold the power in trust for the people, they must exercise it within the limits of the law. For sooner or later, leaders will be called up to render an account of their stewardship. Mr. Zuma has been given five days to turn himself in to police; failing that, the police must arrest and remand him into custody.
Mr. Zuma’s presidency, which ended in 2018, was dogged by graft allegations and abuse of authority.
Specifically, the ex-President has been accused of underhand dealings with businessmen, who conspired with politicians to influence the decision-making process. Zuma made one appearance at the corruption inquiry but subsequently refused to appear, dismissing the exercise as a witch-hunt and claiming he was the victim of a giant political conspiracy. In order to pave the way for his prosecution, the inquiry headed by Justice Raymond Zondo, asked the country’s highest court; the constitutional court to intervene. Although Zuma was not in court to hear the ruling, the court found him guilty of contempt!
The acting Chief Justice, Sisi Kham Pepe was damning in her ruling: “Mr. Zuma refused to come to the court to explain his actions,” she said, and he “elected instead to make provocative, unmeritorious and vituperative statements that constituted a calculated effort to impugn the integrity of the judiciary. I am left with no option but to commit Mr. Zuma to imprisonment, with the hope that doing so sends an unequivocal message… the rule of law and the administration of justice prevails.”
The ex-President has openly denied the allegations and pleaded not guilty to corruption charges involving a $5 billion arms deal from the 1990s, in another case. Without pre-empting the outcome of the case, whether he is found guilty or not, which is also of paramount importance, a more crucial issue is the fact that an ex-President was put on trial and the political atmosphere remains relatively calm and stable, without recourse to violence or crowd renting from his ethnic kinsmen. It is a sign of political maturity in the institutional, behavioral and attitudinal foundations of democratic politics.
The fact that this is coming from an African country with all the attendant human development challenges; and South Africa for that matter, which has been locked in a tussle for continental leadership with the self-proclaimed giant of Africa, makes it the more important. It shows that national greatness is not always a function of size, population, wealth or any other natural resource endowment for that matter. Rather, the quality of leadership and attitude toward power and politics, especially in a democratic setting, count for much; compared to Nigeria’s addiction to do-or-die politics and electoral thuggery; and the perennial low expectations when it comes to organizing free, fair and credible elections in the country.
The trial and imprisonment of Zuma over an issue as trivial as contempt of court is, to that extent, a welcome testimonial about the gradual institutionalization of the rule of law. Before Zuma, Thabo Mbeki, also a former president of South Africa, was dogged by alleged abuse of power and corruption, especially in his mishandling of the HIV-AIDS crisis that ravaged the country. South Africa can, therefore, be said to be in the process of entrenching a culture of the rule of law, where no one is above the law, irrespective of position, personality, wealth and other attributes of the big man syndrome in Africa. That is the path of greatness that other African countries need to emulate.
Nigeria, in particular, should swallow its pride, as the self-acclaimed giant of Africa, and learn from the South African experience. In Nigeria today, all sorts of criminal activities are committed by people in positions of authority, who are hardly brought to trial, let alone punished. If anyone is put on trial at all, it is usually the less privileged, not the powerful ones such as ex-presidents, ex-governors, ex-senators, ex-ministers, ex-directors and heads of MDAs, except in a few exceptional cases of politically-motivated witch-hunt vindictiveness. While Nigerians feel a sense of outrage at the way elected public officers plunder the nation’s resources and flaunt this in the people’s face, the judiciary to whom they look for succor or redress has also turned to a haven of sorts for the looters. Corrupt public officers do not worry about their arraignment in court anymore. Indeed, it is as a big respite and a faster escape route with their loot. And the examples are legion. Take the example of former Delta State Governor, James Ibori who almost became invincible as he got away with every allegation made against him and was freed by the courts in Nigeria. Ironically, the offences of which he was acquitted by the courts in Nigeria were the same offences that earned him his conviction and imprisonment in the UK.
Then there was the pension fraud case where a man convicted of stealing N23.3 billion was sentenced to a fine of N750,000. The public indignation occasioned by this bizarre judgment and others like that led the National Assembly to take steps to legislate against the option of fine in corruption cases. What about conflicting rulings and orders by different courts all in a bid to patronize friends and cronies who have cases before them! Little thought is spared for the integrity and sanctity of that hallowed institution called the judiciary. The judiciary of course is a victim of debauchery and moral despoliation foisted on the country by politicians, a factor which transposed it to a veritable tool of do-or-die politics or its appendage. Of course most of the judges, contrary to time-honored traditions, are nominees of politicians to whom they feel highly indebted and obligated. It is a known fact that only a few become judges without being heavily connected to a renowned politician.
In essence, compromise is engrafted in the recruitment or elevation process ab initio. The role of the Bar is no less condemnable. Rather than aid the judiciary to dispense justice without fear or favor, senior advocates of Nigeria (SANs) and other members of the Bar have turned themselves to conduit pipes of bribery for judges and they are accomplices to case fixing. No nation can progress in the absence of rule of law where all are equal before the law. This is the central lesson of the South African case against former president Jacob Zuma and one that is worthy of emulation by other African countries.