Recently, a South African court sentenced former President Jacob Zuma to 15 months in jail for failing to appear at a corruption inquiry. With that he was seen to have committed an act that is contempt of the tribunal which deserved to be punished. Recall that Zuma failed to appear at the inquiry led by Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo in February, and the inquiry’s lawyers approached the constitutional court to seek an order for his imprisonment.
Sadly, violence that erupted around the country as a result, left at least 72 people dead and nearly 500 arrested. Shops have been looted and buildings set on fire. Indeed, the situation of the former president of South Africa who served from 2009-2018 holds daring lessons for Africa and Nigeria in particular. The experience of Zuma has further brought to the fore the legal dictum that no one is above the law.
We recall that a former French President Nicholas Sarkozy was not too long ago convicted of corruption while in office. He appealed the judgment. Also, Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister of Pakistan for nearly a decade was sentenced to 10 years in prison, then released during an appeal, before being sentenced to seven years in a separate corruption case. In Nigeria, it is almost impossible for any former President to face trial for misdeeds while in office as they have an unwritten immunity even after they leave office. And even if by a strand of courage such a process is initiated, it will be enmeshed in ethnic and political wrangling that will make prosecution almost herculean.
It is gratifying to note, however, that some former governors in Nigeria have been sent to jail for corruption charges. James Bala Ngilari, a former governor of Adamawa State was sentenced to five years in Jail in 2017. Joshua Dariyea former governor of Plateau state and a senator was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment over criminal breach of trust and two years for misappropriation of public funds. Jolly Nyame, a former governor of Taraba State was sentenced to 14 years imprisonment without option of fine after being found guilty of 27 out of 41 counts of alleged diversion of public funds. Lucky Igbinedion, a former governor of Edo state was sentenced to six months imprisonment for money laundering worth N25 billion. He was given an option of fine. James Ibori a former governor of Delta State was sentenced to jail for money laundering by a London court.
However, in Nigeria’s democratic rule, no former president has been put on trial for misdeeds while in office. Democracy can only be deepened when leaders are held accountable. The rule of law is not only the bedrock of any strong democracy, it places everybody equal before the law and no special respect to anyone even those in or out of office.
In the considered opinion of this newspaper, what happened in South African ought to serve as an eye opener to Nigerian leaders. It is important to note that the real charge of corruption against him is still pending.
Issue to take note of in the Zuma case is that country’s justice delivery system, even as a former president, he was not allowed to assume that he is above the law. The law treated him as just another South African who is alleged to have committed a series of crimes while in office. Therefore, in our opinion, it is paramount for other leaders in the continent to realize that their misdeeds while in office are capable of haunting them later when they relinquish power and authority. They will be held accountable by the same system they abused.
Public officers in Nigeria are fond of doing exactly what Zuma did. But the only difference is that while Zuma lives in a country where the rule of law is sacrosanct, his Nigerian counterparts present themselves as above the law and are accepted as such by the same system they raped. That is the tragedy of the Nigerian situation that calls to question her notion of democracy as well as her appreciation of what it means to be guided by laws of natural justice, equity and good conscience.
Political analysts have contended severally that the era of strong men and not strong institutions have been the bane of growth and development in Nigeria. And we agree. Consequently, we insist that our justice system must be reformed and no one should be made to believe that he or she is above the law.
It is convenient to parody the notion that the country’s democratic ethos are work in progress. Maybe. It is also pertinent to emphasize that the right time to get it right is in the beginning. All it requires are the courage of our conviction as a nation and the sense of revulsion when there occurs a departure from the norm. France may seem too civilized and sophisticated to be compared to Nigeria. Is South Africa that too?