Opinion: Zuma’s corruption trial: Lessons for Nigeria

DEMOCRATIC consolidation and rule of law in South Africa have reached a new level with the resolve to put its immediate past president, Jacob Zuma, on trial. He will appear in court on April 6 to face 18 charges, bordering on alleged money laundering, corruption and racketeering in connection with a $2.5 billion arms deal that predated his presidency.

His financial adviser, Schabir Shaik, who solicited bribes from Thint, a local subsidiary of a French company, Thales, that executed the arms contract, had served a two-year jail term upon his conviction in 2005. Also jailed in 2003 for the same offence was Tony Yengeni, an erstwhile chairman of the country’s parliamentary Defence Committee and African National Congress Chief Whip.

This will not be the first time that 75-year-old Zuma will be tried for these charges. High-wired politicking crippled the initial prosecution in 2009, which then paved the way for him to be elected the country’s president.

But the people were not prepared to let go of that infamy. Even while in office, his serial misconduct, especially the discovery by an anti-corruption agency that he used $23 million public funds to refurbish his country home, helped to keep that ugly memory alive. As a result, South Africa’s Supreme Court reinstated the charges in 2016 after Zuma’s appeal to stop it failed.

Calls continued to cascade for him to be impeached as president, exemplified in the nine no-confidence votes in parliament, which, however, failed. That Pyrrhic victory could not endure as anti-graft crusaders had the last laugh. A conflation of ANC pressure and parliamentary impeachment threats compelled him to resign in February, signalling the beginning of Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency.

Zuma’s scalp was claimed by this fraud first in 2005, when he was sacked as the country’s deputy president. This murky tale began in 1999 when South Africa’s arms procurement to overhaul its military ended up being manipulated.

As in other climes where accountability in governance is an article of faith, the case has not been abandoned or buried because Zuma had been the country’s president. This would perhaps have been the case had it been in Nigeria. It is our conviction, however, that Ramaphosa’s leadership will see it through, having pledged during his inauguration to fight corruption and take tough decisions. He had said, “We are determined to build a society defined by decency and integrity that does not tolerate the plunder of public resources.” The chief prosecutor, Shaun Abraham, believes “reasonable prospects of a successful prosecution” exist.

Indeed, putting a former president in the dock for a corruption trial is rare in Africa. Zambia and Egypt are among the very few that have joined the world to show that leaders are not above the law. Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president for 30 years, was convicted in 2015 and jailed three years for embezzling $17.9 million set aside for the renovation of presidential mansions. But Fredrick Chiluba of Zambia, the first to be so treated, was acquitted, whereas a British judge, Peter Smith, had two years earlier, ordered him to pay £23 million to his home government in a different case.

However, the crusade for justice or bringing former leaders to account has yet to materialise in Nigeria, despite an avalanche of corruption trials with global dimensions. Nigerians still wonder what happened to its former leaders and other public office holders linked to the $180 million Halliburton bribery. It is a scam of more than 70-man suspect list.

In the United States, France and the United Kingdom, the trial of suspects in this same matter had long been concluded, convictions secured, and jail terms served. The US alone reaped over $1.5 billion from fines imposed on the company, “the biggest in the world of corporate corruption,” according to the pioneer chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Nuhu Ribadu. About $132 million in bribes was reportedly paid out of the $180 million on offer, to Nigeria’s public officials between 1994 and 2004.

Since then, the country has remained a hovel of corruption, sustained by farcical political leadership, evident in Sambo Dasuki’s $2.1 billion arms scandal and oil revenues not properly accounted for. Just recently, the state was advised by its chief law officer to discontinue from a money-laundering and corruption trial in the Malabu oil $1.3 billion scandal, citing lack of sufficient evidence to sustain the trial.

Yet, Nigeria has recovered $75 million out of $85 million from Britain, which its Southwark Crown Court, seized in respect of the case. Prosecutors handling the same case in Italy claim that $466 million out of the money was laundered via Bureau de change, for bribery in Nigeria. These and more, will remain monuments of graft, which the civilised world uses to jeer Nigeria.

Brazil, Israel, Italy and France are among countries that have not shied away from bringing their former leaders to book on account of corruption. Nicolas Sarkozy of France, for instance, is currently being quizzed for the $50 million election campaign funding allegedly received in 2007 from the late Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. A former president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, in 2017, was sentenced to nine and a half years jail term for receiving a beach apartment as a bribe.

As of 2009, at least 67 former heads of state and governments had been prosecuted for either financial crimes or human rights abuses, according to the book: Prosecuting Heads of State, edited by Ellen Lutz and Caitlin Reiger.

Therefore, in our anti-corruption fight, all citizens must be treated as equal before the law. Those who throng the presidential villa, Abuja, to plead that the best way to preserve the dignity of the most exalted office in the land is by not looking into the past by way of prosecuting its former occupants who might have sullied it, are indeed more debauched than those they seek to protect. The Western world did not develop through such perfidy..




Published by Punch Newspaper

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