•No respite for South African president in Nkandla scandal
• Anger despite refund of $542,000 used to renovate president’s private home
By Emma Emeozor
It was a defining moment for South Africa when, Monday, President Jacob Zuma made a surprise U-turn and agreed to obey a court order to pay back R7.8 million ($542,000) used to renovate his private home. It was victory for the people whose tax money was used. More importantly, the court judgment, now known as the ‘Nkandla Verdict,’ is instructive in a continent where leaders are no respecters of law. Allegations of abuse of office and embezzlement of public funds made against African leaders often end in judiciary dustbins. Perhaps, the lessons from South Africa may mark a new era, where the public watchdog will exercise its full independence and become, truly, the last hope of the masses.
President Zuma, an ex-African National Congress (ANC) foot soldier, who rose from grass to grace to become the leader of Africa’s most industrialised nation, has a history of walking in troubled waters. The Nkandla scandal is the most resent.
In 2002, it was revealed that the cost of the president’s private home in his native village of Nkandla had risen “nearly tenfold.” The revelation immediately generated a national outrage that would drag on for almost six years, as Zuma refused to accept any wrongdoing. The upgrade of the home included a new swimming pool and cattle ranch pens needed “for security reasons.” In the heat of the crisis, the South African presidency explained that the swimming pool was meant for fire fighting.
In order to play down the allegation that he had used public fund to renovate his personal home, the presidency set up a ‘bogus’ internal inquiry in 2013 to investigate the allegation and determine if Zuma really used public funds wrongly. Expectedly, the panel exonerated Zuma of any wrongdoing. For Zuma and the presidency, it was a closed case. But they were day-dreaming, as it would later turn out. Not satisfied with Zuma’s response, the nation’s watchdog, the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), and the opposition refused to be cowed. They insisted that Zuma has abused his office and must face the law.
In 2014, the country’s public prosecutor, Thuli Madonsela. came out with a damning report on the cost of the home, entitled “Secure Comfort.” The report said, “the estimated $23 million cost was eight times what was spent on securing two private homes for former President Nelson Mandela, and more than 1,000 times what was spent on South Africa’s last apartheid-era President, F.W. de Klerk.”
Even then, Zuma remained adamant, insisting he had used his own money to pay for the job. The faceoff between the presidency and the nation’s watchdog reached a climax when internal party rivals, political allies, and breakaway factions went on the rooftop to denounce the president’s arrogance, just as they called for a government shake-up.
The ire of those who called for government action was informed by the thinking that, by his action, Zuma had become a threat to the electoral fortunes of the ANC. They were mindful of the harm the scandal, if not resolved early, could do to the ANC especially with local elections ahead, as it did when the ANC, for the first time, performed below expectations in the elections.
This is not the first time Zuma would be enmeshed in corruption crises. In 2005, he was accused, respectively, of rape and corruption. He was acquitted of rape in 2006 and the corruption case was dismissed later.
When a watchdog knows its ‘onions’
In African countries, the national watchdog knows where the race ends when the presidency and, indeed, Mr. President is directly involved in a case, as in the case of Zuma. Such cases die a natural death. And this is where South Africa’s National Prosecuting Authority has stood out. Despite Zuma’s insistence that he was not guilty of any wrongdoing and, therefore, he would not pay back the money, Madonsela, stuck to her guns, insisting on prosecuting the president, except he paid back the money. Her professionalism, bravery and consistency in invoking the letters of the law speaks volumes, just as it poses a challenge to public prosecutors elsewhere. It also shows how strong and independent the judiciary is in South Africa. For once, a public prosecutor has gone to court, fully prepared to put the president, who is the custodian of the nation’s authority, on trial. And she won, as reports monitored in Lagos showed. The 11 Justices of South Africa’s Constitutional Court were unanimous in their judgment after deliberations on the arguments of Madonsela and Zuma’s lawyer, Jeremy Gauntlett.
The Justices said Madonsele’s 2014 report “was legally binding’’ and that remedial action “should have been upheld.” Therefore, Zuma must pay back the money. They further said Zuma showed a “substantial disregard’’ for the constitutional power of the public prosecutor. “The president is the head of state; his is the calling to the highest office in the land; he is the first citizen of this country,” said Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.
“The nation pins its hopes on him to steer the country in the right direction,” Mogoeng added. Yet, he was not done with his query of the president. Hear him: “In failing to comply with the remedial action, the president thus failed to uphold, comply and respect the Constitution. The president may have been acting on wrong legal advice in good faith. But the illegality stands,” he said.
The Chief Justice also noted that the president did not challenge Madonsela through due process, an apparent reference to the internal inquiry the presidency set up in 2012. Mogoeng accused Zuma of preferring to use the inquiry as a ‘’shield,’’ considering himself to be lawfully absolved’’
Tongue lash for parliament, praise for prosecutor
The primary objective of any parliament is to represent and uphold the interest of the people. It is the responsibility of the parliament to ensure that the executive follows due process in all of its activities. But, often, the parliament in Africa plays second fiddle, rubber-stamping the illegality of the executive and receiving gratification in return. It was, therefore, a clear message not only to South African MPs but also to MPs across the continent when Chief Justice Mogoeng tongue-lashed the South African parliament, which is dominated by ANC lawmakers, for failing in their responsibility as protectors of public interest. He said the parliament had “failed in its obligations by not holding Zuma to account.” To Mogoeng, it is wrong for the parliament to tolerate the president’s impunity.
On the other hand, the public prosecutor earned praise when Mogoeng described the office of the public prosecutor as “the embodiment of a ‘biblical David,’ who fights the very well resourced ‘Goliath’ that is the impropriety of government officials.” He warned, “the public prosecutor’s office should not be undermined.”
The real reason Zuma surrendered
Zuma is an old horse in the politics of post-apartheid South Africa. He is a dogged fighter who certainly knows when to act. After former President Thabo Mbeki sacked him from the office of the vice-president in 2005, following allegations of rape and corruption, he returned to the ANC to launch a fight against Mbeki. He took advantage of the unpopularity of the economic policies of Mbeki and succeeded in garnering overwhelming support. He would later return as the country’s president while Mbeki was sacked by the party.
Zuma knows too well that a sword of Damocles is currently hanging over his head and he may get the boot the same way Mbeki did. Already, his many ‘sins’ have become a source of worry for the party. With the furore the Nkandla saga generated, he knows that, except he surrenders, he would be swept away by the tide of the crisis. This is more so as he has no cover under the immunity clause, which protects many African presidents from prosecution.
Daily Sun’s check with the South African High Commission in Abuja indicates the president enjoys no immunity from prosecution. This is to suggest that Zuma was already heading for trial and outright impeachment, but for the U-turn and his acceptance to obey the court order within the 60 days given him. Alternatively, the ANC would have recalled him, just as it did Mbeki before the end of his tenure in 2008.
Immunity clause called to question
What is instructive in the South African example is that the ‘Nkandla scandal’ and the consequent payback of money by Zuma following the court judgment have called to question the immunity clause as practiced in many African countries. It shows that the immunity clause does more evil than good, as it shields corrupt and authoritarian leaders from prosecution even when it becomes expedient for them to answer queries from the people on whose behalf they hold the mandate to govern. Over the years, notable African leaders have escaped with their loot, shown impunity and refused to be accountable to the people. They have even twisted the law to silence the voice of the people.
In Gabon, the late President Omar Bongo was alleged to have acquired expensive apartments in the French capital, Paris. He is said to have also bought posh cars and had no fewer than 70 bank accounts. In Equatorial Guinea, President Teodoro Obiang Nguema has been accused of owning a fleet of cars, in addition to expensive apartments in Paris. Congo-Brazzaville’s Denis Sassan-Nguesso is another member of this club. He is a two-time president, who, according to reports, owns 100 French bank accounts and more than 20 properties.
Zambia’s President Fredrick Chilubia is the first former African president prosecuted in his own country for allegedly embezzling public funds. Even then, his supporters said he was a victim of political persecution. And former Chadian President Hissene Habre is the first former African leader to be prosecuted and sentenced to life in jail on African soil for rights abuse and corruption. His case, which was handled by a tribunal set up by Senegal with the support of the African Union, took years to conclude. He did not only refuse to recognise the tribunal but said, through his lawyers, that he would appeal the judgment.
Not yet ‘Uhuru’ for Zuma
Zuma, through the presidency, apologised over the Nkandla scandal. He said he was not properly advised, hence the error he made. He further said he has taken out a home loan on standard terms from the private VBS Mutual Bank to repay the $542,000, as ordered by the court.
The president cannot fool the entire country. And his critics within and outside the ANC have vowed to send him packing. Already, in April when the issue came up and Zuma refused to accept guilt and pay back the money, an impeachment motion was made on the floor of the parliament by the opposition. He survived it with 233 to 143 votes. The impeachment vote failed because the ANC had two-third majority in parliament. But now the call for his impeachment has become louder. There are strong indications that Zuma may not last until the end of his second term in 2019.
Reports say he is under fire from all sides, “including the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), Church Leaders, Mandela era veterans, the media and online petitioners.”
“Jacob Zuma is the cancer at the heart of South Africa’s politics. He is not capable of honourable conduct and cannot continue to be president of our country,’’ the DA insists.
Reports once quoted the national defense union as saying, “the president can no longer be considered a fit and proper person to remain the commander-in-chief of the South African National Defence Force nor can any of the parliamentary members who so stubbornly protected him be considered fit as proper persons to hold office as members of parliament.”
The ANC is not free from the criticism trailing Zuma’s conduct. Political commentators say the ANC is heading for its final disintegration and would continue to perform poorly in future elections. They point to “persistent, deep-rooted problems, including the failure to care for the poorest in society, high-level corruption, a crumbling education system, influence-peddling by wealthy businessmen and chronic mismanagement.”
As it is, time will tell what becomes of Zuma and the ANC.