Emma Emeozor, [email protected]
The arrest and conviction of the wife of Israeli prime minister, Mrs Sarah Netanyahu over unrestricted spending of public funds may have come as a surprise to many, especially in Africa where First Ladies are untouchable.
Netanyahu was convicted last week of “fraudulently using state funds for meals, under a plea bargain which dropped more severe charges.”How the law caught up with her was most dramatic. “She was found guilty of using the errors of government accounting staff to bypass spending restrictions.”
It is instructive that though Netanyahu is the country’s First Lady, her deeds were not overlooked. Rather, she was compelled to face the law. Instead of her lawyer representing her at the court, she was put on the dock to answer to the charges brought against her. To some, this was humiliating while to others, it was a good lesson.
And when the verdict was eventually delivered, she was fined 10,000 shekels (US$2,800) and ordered to reimburse the state a further 45,000 shekels. The judge at the Jerusalem magistrate court where she was put on trial emphasised the seriousness of her crime when he said “the deal reached between the sides is worthy and appropriately reflects the deeds and their severity on the criminal level.”
Netanyahu was charged in June 2018 with “fraud and breach of trust for paying $100,000 (85,000 euros) for meals from well-known Jerusalem businesses.”The case lasted for eleven months during which all sides to it were diligently examined by the judge.
In her desperate effort to find a way of escape, Netanyahu had falsely declared that no cook was available at their official residence. But the prosecution countered her claim in his argument. “Despite the fact that cooks were employed at the residence, the accused instructed staff at the residence, as a matter of normal practice, to order prepared meals from restaurants for herself, her family and visitors,”the prosecutor said.
The Jerusalem District Attorney’s office described the process leading to the indictment of the First Lady as “a long-running investigation,”pointing out that the decision to indict Netanyahu and her accomplice Mr Ezra Send-off, a former deputy director-general of the prime minister’s office, was made “after reviewing all evidence and weighing all circumstances of the case.”
What the remarks by the District Attorney’s office means is that no stone was left unturned to ensure that justice was done. Also, it was a veil way of saying that there were no external interference in the investigation and the judicial process was allowed to take its course.
But for the plea bargain reached by the First Lady, she would have been sentenced and put in jail. Following the plea bargain, the charges were amended to replace the graft charges which included “obtaining a benefit by deliberately exploiting the mistake of another person.”
Why the case is unique
Netanyahu is not an ordinary citizen of Israel. Her status as First Lady did not give immunity from prosecution. He arrest and conviction attests to the adage that says the law is no respecter of persons. It was a rare demonstration that nobody, irrespective of his or her status in the society is above the law.
Also, the verdict sends a clear message that reckless spending of state funds is unacceptable no matter who is involved and importantly, those in custody of state power should not abuse the trust the people reposed on them.
Despite her position, Netanyahu subjected herself to arrest and accepted the verdict. There were no reports of her threatening fire and brimstone, accusing the judge of bias and appealing the verdict. On the whole, it was a victory for the state.
Africa’s First Ladies
African countries must learn from Israel. Certainly, if Netanyahu were to be an African First Lady, she would have undermined the court. Of course, the authorities would have frustrated any attempt by the court to hear the case. Though the constitution in African country’s do not recognise the First Lady as a government functionary and therefore she does not enjoy immunity from prosecution, there are no reports of any First Lady prosecuted for misconduct.
Yet, many of them have been seen to have flagrantly abused their position. Interestingly, the office of the First Lady is a classification by politicians who want to make their wives relevant in the affairs of government. Interestingly, in many African countries, the office has become so powerful that the First Ladies exercise enormous authority.
Sometimes, the convoy of a First Lady could be comparable to that of the president or prime minister. Huge amount of state funds are spent on providing office and staff for the First Lady such that the uniformed would think it is a government parastatal.
But what is never disclosed is the source of the funding of the office and the (pet) projects they execute. These projects are usually classified under charity aimed at improving the living condition of the people. Undoubtedly, this is a good gesture and should be encouraged provided the funds are accounted for as required by the law. In other words, accountability should not be swept under the carpet.
In all civilised societies, charity organisations subject themselves to public scrutiny as well as official audit by relevant government agencies. Some of the vital information that such organisations provide to auditors include the source of funding their projects, precisely, income and expenditure.
So far, it is unheard of that the financial record of the ‘Office’ of the First Lady in any African country has been examined to determine how funds were received and spent. The irony of the situation is that many charity organisations initiated by Africa’s First Ladies fold up as soon as the president or prime minister quits. Observers have attributed this development to the inability of the organisations to raise funds as the doors of government ministries and parastatals become closed after the exit of the First citizen.
Analysts believe projects sponsored by African First Ladies are campaign tools used to boost the First family. While they agree that some of the projects are of benefit to the people, they argue that they are poorly managed just as they serve as conduit pipe for siphoning public funds. It is for this reason, they want the activities of the organisations be subjected to periodical scrutiny by approved audit firms.
But it is not only the pet projects of the First Ladies that are of concern to experts on governance in Africa. They have also raised questions over their lavish life style, especially their taste and spending on domestic needs. They draw attention to the huge budgetary allocation for domestic affairs, including food and drinks.
It is callous for a government to spend millions of dollars on the First family in a country where abject poverty is crippling the people, for example. African countries are among the countries of the world where majority of the people live on less than $1.19 per day, according to the United Nations. So, while a few live in affluence, courtesy of state funds, the rest of the people are living in abject poverty.
The problem is further compounded by the extravagant life style of African lawmakers. The parliament has the responsibility to check the excesses of the executive. Compelling the executive to give a holistic account of budgetary allocation annually is the responsibility of the lawmakers. But they too are offenders in matters of abuse of office.
African lawmakers have been accused severally of embarking on ‘jamboree’ trips abroad. Their wives and children ditto. There had been reports of lawmakers refusing to give account of fund received for official assignments.
The lesson to be learnt from Netanyahu’s case is that nobody is above the law in a country where the leaders are sincere and allow the judiciary to function unhindered. The case brought to fore the responsibility of the First Lady to ensure that public funds are judiciously spent. Ordinarily, the system of probity in Israel should not be different from any other country, certainly, not Africa.
Curiously, in virtually all African countries, the fight against graft has been stepped up though on a shaky ground. It is hoped that the authorities will not give up the fight or jettison it through nepotism (when their cronies are involved). In other words, the fight against graft can succeed only when it is transparently pursued. This is where the example of Netanyahu becomes relevant.