The recent events in South Africa are not only heartening, they portend good omen for Africans.
Jacob Zuma’s exit from the presidency and leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) capped a good list of good developments in leadership succession on the continent.
Barely three months ago, the continent celebrated a graceful march of democracy in what was once seen as a notorious enclave of demonisation of democratic ideals and good governance, Zimbabwe, when Robert Mugabe’s ZANU-PF, organised his graceful exit without bloodshed. And there was a genuine acknowledgment of the supremacy of the people as the military authorities subordinated themselves to civilian leadership for a smooth transfer of power.
Despite a perception of lack of strong political will to fight corruption in war-torn Liberia on the west coast of Africa, the just departed President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf bagged the prestigious Mo Ibrahim laurel for good governance, specifically for her grit in sustaining the peace process for 12 years. The trustees of the (MIF) Award, suspended for two years without winners, praised the former Liberian President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s apparent efforts at sustaining peaceful democracy on which her new successor, George Oppong Weah could build to deliver development and growth.
While the continent was still relishing the gains in Liberia, the continent’s rising profile was further boosted by the development in South Africa.
Despite all of his artful dodging from the long arms of the law, the sleazy Jacob Zuma had to step down as President under pressure from strong state institutions. He had to resign from office even reluctantly because the governing grand old Party, the African National Congress (ANC) asked him to. And from the ashes of good politicking and a fairly decent political recruitment as well as peaceful succession arrangement in the former apartheid enclave emerged Cyril Ramaphosa as the new President.
After his government had become crippled by scandals, Zuma refused to go quietly, as most African leaders often do. In August 2017, when a new wave of scandals hit his presidency following a leak of confidential e-mails showing that the Indian-born Gupta family had used their influence to appoint a cabinet minister and benefit from government contracts, attempt was made to remove Zuma through a vote of no confidence. By 21 votes, Zuma survived with as many as 26 members of his party rooting for him to remain president. By this time, however, Zuma had become a liability to the ruling ANC.
But the iconic party understood the times and waited for the right time. To force Zuma out, it insisted on backing a new motion of no-confidence filed by the opposition. And that did it.
For years, Zuma did all that was politically possible to manipulate the system to ensure that the corruption allegations against him were thwarted. Like many other African leaders, he sought to consolidate his grip on power.
The list is fairly robust. Yoweri Kaguta Museveni is still the president of Uganda after decades in power and with his reign reeking of corruption. Teodoo Obiang Nguema Mbasogo has become more or less synonymous with Equatorial Guinea. Paul Biya continues in office as the president of Cameroon and persons below 40 years of age genuinely do not understand that there can be another president in Cameroon. And Robert Gabriel Mugabe retained his office as president from 1980 till he was eased out a few months ago.
In essence, the attitude of African leaders to power remains shamefully the same: no respect for the rule of law as they change, bend and even break the laws to retain power. They do not know when to quit the stage.
So, easing Zuma out is, again, victory for democracy, victory for strong political parties and for strong state institutions. Both the ANC and the South African people deserve plaudits.
For a man who initially enjoyed so much support of the people, Zuma’s fall is particularly tragic.
After Thambo Mbeki was forced to resign as president over allegations of conflict of interest, aloofness and insensitivity, Zuma, barely literate, but one of the giants of the anti-apatheid struggle, became president.
But his journey to the top had always been dogged by whiffs of corruption. Even as vice president to Mbeki, news broke out that Zuma had allegedly collected bribes in a controversial arms deal with a French company. In June 2005, he was charged with corruption for allegedly accepting bribes from French arms company Thint Holdings. Mbeki promptly dismissed him as vice president. And he was charged with money laundering and racketeering.
In December 2005, the same Zuma was accused of raping an HIV-positive family friend but was found not guilt in a trial that ended in 2006.[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]Zuma’s famous statement that he “had a shower” to avoid an HIV infection came as a surprise to many and he became a butt of ridicule all over the world.
Soon after, he became the ANC leader and he asked the court to declare his prosecution for corruption unconstitutional. In September 2008, the court did, but in January 2009, the appeal court overturned the previous ruling, thereby opening the way for Zuma’s trial to begin, months before the general elections.
Again curiously, when it was obvious that Zuma was going to be president, the chief prosecutor decided to drop charges against him because phone-tap evidence showed that there had been political interference with the investigation.[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip] That was in April 2009 and behold, a month later, Zuma became the President of South Africa.
But all his fundamental character flaws seemed ingrained and followed the man into the exalted office.
The high point came in 2013 when it was alleged that Zuma used state funds to upgrade his residence in the rural town of Nkandla in northern KwaZulu-Natal. In 2014, the report of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela on security upgrades to the Nkandla compound was made public and indicted the president who had failed in all efforts, including filing cases in courts, to stop the release of the report.
In 2016, South Africa’s highest court ruled against Zuma. It held that he breached his oath of office by using government money to upgrade his private home and that he must refund 7.8 million Rand to the government treasury.
In deference, Zuma apologised to the people of South Africa for what he termed,[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]“frustration and confusion” caused by the scandal.
One thing that was clear from the South African experience is that despite attempts by the president to influence them and the twists and turn of the case, the prosecution was diligent and persistent while the judiciary did its job to the satisfaction of the people. That is a great lesson for all of Africa.
For Nigeria, this is even a more fundamental lesson. In a country where the anti-corruption agencies cannot investigate the president because he or she enjoys a curious immunity enshrined in the Constitution, how can the society be sanitized? The governors and now the legislators also enjoy immunity and the result is a nation of sundry sacred cows. Nigeria’s anti-graft agencies tend to investigate and prosecute only members of the opposition and other offenders while members of the ruling party enjoy some ‘immunity’ or protection. Indeed, when the accused from the opposition defects to the governing party, his or her case files are curiously kept away from the courts. Government business is shrouded in secrecy and the people are denied the right to know the state of their treasury.
For instance, when Nigerian citizens asked to know how much of public money was spent on President Muhammadu Buhari’s treatment in London no information was volunteered. No one has alleged any wrong-doing but the decision of the authorities to hide this from the public is lack of transparency in governance. This is in sharp contrast to the South African experience where a security upgrade in a sitting President’s residence became a crime he had to pay dearly for.
Of course, only when institutions, including the political party systems, begin to work for the public and not for leaders or government officials will democracy deepen in all of Africa.
South Africa has shown what is possible when the political parties are owned by the people and are supreme and cannot be overruled or undermined by their leaders, however powerful.
The norm here is that the political parties are not owned by the people but by a few men of power and means. This has prevented parties from being truly independent and democratic with attendant consequences in Nigeria.
It is therefore not enough to congratulate South Africa and its new President, Cyril Ramaphosa. It is more important for the rest of Africa to learn from those experiences and build strong institutions for democracy, peace, progress and prosperity.
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