By Emma Emeozor
Coming from a poor family background, he rose from grass to grace fighting for the dismantling of apartheid. As a foot soldier, he carried boxes of ammunition for the freedom fighters.
His sense of patriotism was unrivaled. History would eventually smile on him but not after he has been to prison alongside leaders like former President Nelson Mandela.
Jacob Zuma, 79, became deputy president before becoming the third president of post-apartheid South Africa. Then, the sudden twist. Having reached the zenith of his political career, his world began to collapse like a pack of cards. His career became riddled with corruption allegations. He was forced from office as president. He has denied all the allegations.
Today, the ever boisterous Zuma who served as president from 2009 to 2018 is spending 15 months in prison for contempt of court. The protests that trailed his sentence left no fewer than 337 people dead and property worth millions of dollars either looted or destroyed as the pro-Zuma protesters unleash mayhem on the streets of South Africa.
Meanwhile, the trial of Zuma has been postponed until next month. A judge at the Pietermaritzburg High Court in the former president’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal on Tuesday reportedly adjourned the trial until August 10. Zuma’s lawyers had requested a delay to allow him to appear in person and properly consult with them.
In this report, International Affairs expert and lecturer, University of Lagos, Dr Ferdenand Ottoh examines the circumstances leading to Zuma’s jail. He takes a swipe at the former president for resisting arrest. Ottoh believes Zuma’s sentence was a thumb for South Africa’s rule of law.
Asked if he was surprised to hear that Zuma was sent to jail for not appearing at an inquiry on corruption during his era as president, Otto did not hesitates when he said “the issue is not about being surprised. The issue is that it is worth acknowledging the strength of South Africa’s institution, it shows that no one is above the law. That is what is assured. You must not forget that South Africa is always seen as an example of a democratic state and when you say a democratic state, it means that in all standard of measurement, the institution is working just like what you can expect in America. So I will not say that I am surprised.
However Ottoh was quick to knocks Zuma hard… “I will say I am surprised because of his conduct as ex-president and somebody who was held in very high esteem, having fought for the dismantling of apartheid. But that is the irony of African leaders, it is very difficult to see African leaders that will live above board when it comes to the issue of corruption. So, I am only surprise that a personality like Zuma will not obey the law.”
The don also berates Zuma’s supporters for not only trying to shield him from arrest but also holding South Africans hostage by violently occupying the streets. He noted that it is “a typical African behaviour.” “Have you forgotten here in Nigeria, when somebody is accused of corruption and is taken to court by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), his kinsmen will sew ‘asheobi’to go and give him solidarity, they see the alleged ‘loot’ as their turn . . . that mentality is pervasive in Africa. Let me not generalise. We have seen it now in the case of South Africa. May be they are copying or borrowing from what is happening in Nigeria. It is unfortunate.”
Ottoh is worried that this attitude has eaten deep in the veins of Africans, a development he says has become difficult to erase. “I will not tell you now what should be done to reorientate the people because those talks are at the realm of theory. We are talking of reality. In Africa, we are getting so engrossed in this type of situation, even a child that is born today is taking an oath that whatever happens, he should always stand by his people. Well, if that is the case, it would have been very nice. But we are seeing it in a very negative way. I am not saying it is wrong for anyone to stand by his people. But because of the wrong impression that kind of behaviour is creating, it is worrisome.
“It is even more worrisome that South Africans can embark on this type of solidarity show. South Africa is highly developed, so it is not just like some African states that are still far behind development. It was expected that after the whites have left South Africa, after few years we will see things turning around. May be in the theory . . . when we saw that South Africa was being categorised as highly developed was because the country was under the leadership of the whites. Now the country is under the leadership of the blacks. Removing Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, we are seeing a twist in the leadership of the country.
“So, what use to be a shining example, may not be the case now . . . so the reorientation of the citizens is a difficult task because I don’t know where to start. In theory, yes, from primary level, let the children be taught how to behave to maintain that spirit of patriotism. That is in the realm of theory and at the school level.
“But the reality on the ground is that these children, as they are growing up, they are learning from what has happened in their society, the way their leaders are behaving. So, they also grow up to begin to behave in the same way. It is not even a question of whether they were able to do the right thing or not or to begin to question their leaders like what we see here in Nigeria when you sit down and begin to observe the characters that we call our leaders . . . politicians . . . not leaders alone, and even the followers, you begin to laugh, yes, you begin to laugh, you begin to question the kind of things that we expect from our leaders if we the followers are behaving the way we should behave. So, I begin to wonder the kind of orientation we are going have.”
Zuma had tried to avoid being sent to jail by complaining that he has not been given fair hearing and also, he was likely to contact COVID-19. But the court rejected his plea. Would the court in Nigeria have rejected such a plea from an ex-president? Ottoh was emphatic in his response.
“What it shows in actual sense is that the judiciary in South Africa is non partisan, it is independent to a large extent. But the judges are human beings. So, when we talk about non partisan or the independence of the judiciary, it is to the extent that the judges are not able to dance to the tune of the government in power.
“But as it is, because of the way they have demonstrated, the judiciary in South Africa should be applauded for insisting that justice must be done. Of course, Zuma no longer enjoys the immunity of the president. But if it were to be in Nigeria, who is that court that will have that courage to order for the arraignment of an ex-president, because we are making this comparison looking at a country that has strong institution and a country that has very weak institution.”
But is Zuma’s jail enough to say that South Africa is really fighting corruption? Ottoh says
“they are trying to set a precedent by this action. Fighting corruption is another thing. But I think it will serve as deterrent to any other leader in South Africa that you cannot do anything and get away with it. So, Zuma’s conviction is a very good example and a lesson to be learnt by others.”
There is another allegation against Zuma involving arms deal to the tune of $2 billion when he was vice president. But he was able to stay in power eventually becoming the president. Was it a case of toughness? Ottoh disagrees.
“I don’t think it was about being tough. Rather, it was about disobedience to the rule of Law. We don’t begin to talk about strong men but we will begin to look at strong institutions. Because strong men are dictators. So, if himself, since that 1999 when he was deputy president, has shown that kind of attitude and he was still elected, it is a shameful thing that he failed the confidence reposed in him by his people. So, it is not about being tough or strong, it is a sign of somebody being a dictator. But let us go back again to applaud the judiciary in South Africa for taking such a bold step.”
In Nigeria, we have heard President Muhammadu Buhari complaining that corruption is fighting back and it has also been alleged that the judiciary was being control remotely. Hear Otto’s reaction: “It is not about giving advice. The truth of the matter in the case of Nigeria, yes, we can see it very clearly, all these issues of insecurity etc, it is a way of corruption fighting back just to weaken the government. I am not holding brief for the government.
“But I’m only saying that from my own analytical point of view that corruption is fighting back, most of the people who must have in one way or the other been involved in corrupt practices are finding a way to destabilise the government when the government is out to deal with them.
“The other problem is that our judiciary at a point compromise. I always say it anywhere I have the opportunity to do so. Part of the problem we have in Nigeria is lawyers and the press. When I say the press, I am talking emphatically. The press for instance should report objectively based on what is seen3 on the ground, based on the investigation done. But what we see in most of our press now is that they make their reports based on what the reporters read in the social media. That is one.
“The lawyers: May be what they are taught in the law school is just to find technical ways to prolong issues. In US, we have more of lawyers. But that is not to say that because they are lawyers, they connive with bad persons to commit evil, no. They always believe that America should come first irrespective of who you are, irrespective of the position you occupy. But in our own case, lawyers will connive because everybody is hustling to make money. So, they see it as an opportunity, they know that this person is a thief, yes a lawyer is trained to defend a thief. But when it comes to the issue of the state, the survival of the state, all this argument about lawyers talking about the rule of law . . . I ask the question . . . rule of law can only exist and survive when there is a state. And in fact it is the state that is also empowered to enforce the rule of law not lawyers.
So it when we make the state to be strong . . . it is not about president because Buhari as the current president. After Buhari, another president will emerge. The institution must be respected, the institution must be made strong for the so call rule of law they are talking about to be enforced. So, in the case of South Africa, putting it aside with Nigeria, we have not reached anywhere . . . we have not reached anywhere. Yes, we need a proper reorientation, it has to start from the grassroots.
I am not condemning the press, I am only saying that the press have a duty irrespective of their political and ethnic affiliation because the press is the watchdog, the eye of the people.