THE famous dictum that the law is no respecter of persons was made evident in the recent conviction of the immediate past president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma. He will now spend the next 15 months in prison for contempt of court after he refused to appear at a government-appointed commission investigating alleged corruption during his nine years in office.
In her ruling, the courageous Acting Chief Justice of South Africa, Sisi Khampepe, said, “I am left with no option but to commit Zuma to imprisonment, with the hope that doing so sends an unequivocal message… the rule of law and the administration of justice prevails.”
The 79-year-old anti-apartheid hero, who is a leader of the ruling African National Congress, was forced by his party to resign as president in 2018. He subsequently failed to obey an order by South Africa’s highest court to appear at the Judicial Commission of Inquiry into allegations of corruption.
The commission, which was launched by Zuma himself during his final days in office, has for nearly three years listened to testimony on how he and members of his government allegedly allowed well-connected businessmen and foreign companies to secure overpriced government contracts in return for payments and other favours.
Zuma, who is facing a separate corruption trial involving a $5 billion arms deal from the 1990s, has been given five days to hand himself in to the police or the police minister must order his arrest. That a former president – who is a senior member of the ruling party – could be treated as any other citizen before the law, especially in a sub-Saharan African country, is worth commending.
But South Africa is not the only country to convict a former head of state. In March, former President Nicolas Sarkozy of France was found guilty of corruption and imprisoned. In January, South Korea’s Supreme Court upheld a 20-year jail term for former President Park Geun-Hye of South Korea over a vast corruption scandal that led to her downfall.
Many African countries have also shown promise in punishing some of their past leaders who ran afoul of the law. In 2019, former President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan was sentenced to two years in prison for corruption following the discovery of over $130 million cash in his residence. In Algeria, two former prime ministers – Ahmed Quyahia and Abdelmalek Salleh – were imprisoned for corruption.
But in Nigeria, the President, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), who claims to be championing an anti-corruption crusade, has chosen not to rock the boat by his regime’s failure to bring some former Nigerian leaders to justice, amid weighty allegations of abuse of office. The late Sani Abacha is one of the former leaders to whom stolen funds have been traced. So far, the Swiss authorities have returned $752 million, and $321 million in two tranches, while the United States government repatriated $311 million stashed in its domain. Luxembourg has also returned a lot of money stolen by the late military despot to Nigeria. There are more of such in other countries. But for his death, Abacha would probably have been walking the streets of Nigeria as a saint.
Despite prosecuting scores of ex-appointees in the administration of former President Goodluck Jonathan, the Buhari regime has tactically avoided touching Jonathan while millions of dollars allegedly traced to his wife, Patience, are still a subject of forfeiture in different courts.
Nigeria has failed to internalise democratic norms that could guarantee equality before the law. In 1999, three former military heads of state, including Buhari, were summoned by the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission led by Justice Chukwudifu Oputa, but they all shunned the summons. They eventually approached the Supreme Court in 2003, which declared the commission illegal.
Just last year, the Attorney-General of the Federation and the Minister of Justice, Abubakar Malami, who is the country’s chief law officer, shunned a summons by a Judicial Commission of Inquiry that was investigating a former acting Chairman of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, Ibrahim Magu, after allegations of graft were levelled against him. There have also been reports of police officers ignoring invitations by the panels probing atrocities by the defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad in the different states.
According to the legal adviser to Amnesty International, Kolawole Olaniyan, Buhari has shown stunning disregard for the rule of law and human rights, ignoring Nigerian judges on at least 40 occasions as of 2019. In January, the Chief Justice of Nigeria, Tanko Muhammad, lamented the flagrant disobedience to court orders by highly placed persons, saying, “Obedience of lawful court orders has no alternative in any sane society. A threat to this is simply a call for anarchy… Most times, some persons who, by a sheer stroke of providence, find themselves in a position of authority, flagrantly disobey lawful court orders and even boast about it.”
The United Nations General Assembly states that an independent judiciary is essential to the full and non-discriminatory realisation of human rights and is indispensable to the democratisation processes.
Nigeria needs courageous and incorruptible judges. The judiciary must assert its authority by ensuring that court orders are obeyed to the letter. Like Caesar’s wife, the judiciary must be above suspicion. When the public believes that judgments could go to the highest bidder, it becomes difficult for court pronouncements to be obeyed. Strengthening institutions remains essential to building an ideal society.