“Disregard any rumor that Zuma has stepped down! I visited him in Owerri this morning and he is still standing there”
For a split second, I was going to believe this message which went viral on social media a day after Zuma was reported to have “stepped aside”. It did not take time for me to realize it was the usual Nigerian humor, making light of every situation. Humour is a life saver for Nigerians! Sometime ago, a study showed that Nigerians were the happiest people on earth. I do not know where we stand on the happiness index right now, even with the recent appointment of a Commissioner for Happiness in a state in the South East. This is because Nigeria itself has gone through various transformations, albeit in the negative territory.
Nigerians now kill each other with more reckless abandon. Kidnapping for ransom, abduction of innocent school children from school, unleashing of general mayhem at will, invading of crowded places and places of worship with bombs and explosives and generally having little or no regard for each other’s lives, have become mainstream occurrences. Hate speeches have become the order of the day and ethnic and religious war mongering seem to take centre stage in our daily discourse. Matters are not helped by the poor state of the economy. It is only the social media that keeps some people entertained.
In the midst of all these, Jacob Zuma, the ‘interesting, if not ‘near-comical’ leader of ANC was forced to retire from power. I am sure that one of the people who did not welcome the ouster of Zuma with excitement is the Executive Governor of Imo State, “Uncle Roche” who not long ago had raised a controversial statue for him in Owerri, thousands of kilometers away from where Zuma enjoyed any significant facial or name recognition. The name “Uncle Roche” came from a recent encounter I had with a woman who was preparing some youngsters for a presentation at a forum for the South South and South East Governors. I am not sure of the details, but what I was meant to understand was that there was going to be a banquet where the kids were going to entertain the Governors and their guests. The kids were going to address the Governors, not in their official appellation but as uncles. As I came in, I saw that they had resolved how to address the Governors save for two South South governors, those of Rivers and Bayelsa States. They felt “Uncle Wik” sounded like “Weak” and did not represent the man well, given his fighting and “never say die” spirit as he was not weak by any standards. They had more problems with the Bayelsa governor given that “Uncle Dick” did not sound very appropriate for the “Country Man”. They were concerned about the mischievous connotation “Uncle Dick” could be associated with. They needed my input. I solved the problem for them when I recommended that they should work with their first names, which will not only be consistent with the other governors, but will save them the trouble. Nyesom became “Uncle Nyes” while Henry became “Uncle Hen”. As I went through the rest of the list, I found that there were bigger problems with how to address the governors of Abia and Imo, which they apparently weren’t conscious about. To their disappointment, I explained that “Uncle Oke” had a very negative connotation because “Oke” in Igbo language means rat. I was sure that they didn’t have any intention to judge the governor nor address him in a derogatory manner. I also quarreled with the appellation, “Uncle Roche” given that this may also be misunderstood as it may be a short form of cockroach. They were still struggling with it when I left and I’m unsure if and how they resolved the two names.
Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma, 76, was the fourth President of Independent South Africa. He took office in 2009. He was one of the strong members of the African National Congress (ANC) which was founded in 1912. As a member of the militant wing of the ANC, he served a 10 year jail term in Robben Island, the same gulag where the late Nelson Mandela was held. Before taking over as President, he served as Deputy to President Thabo Mbeki from 1999 to 2005, a position he was sacked from for bribery and money laundering that had to do with an arms deal involving a French company. Mbeki, was subsequently forced to leave office on September 20, 2008, owing to a ruling by the South African court that he had interfered with the operations of a prosecuting authority which in fact was prosecuting Zuma for corruption. The ANC acted promptly by recalling Mbeki and in response to this, he put in his resignation. The case of corruption, fraud, money laundering and racketeering against Zuma suffered many setbacks at the courts and at the end of it all, it was struck out for procedural error and political interference. Nigeria may not be alone, you might say!
Then enter the case of improper sexual conduct against Zuma. Even though he was not convicted, Zuma confessed to forcefully sleeping with an HIV positive family friend, but put up a ludicrous defense to the effect that he had a shower after the act to prevent him from being infected by the virus. That he was not convicted was not because he was innocent but the court went into technicalities and dropped the charges against him. Sounds familiar, right? All these happened just before he was elected President in May 2009.
Zuma was a man of controversy all around; from politics to business and down to the home front. He has six wives and over twenty children, some of them out of wedlock.
Moving from one scandal to another, in 2013, Zuma was accused of using public funds to engage in massive renovation and retrofitting of his private palatial property in Kwa Zulu Natal. Three years later, after employing all sorts of tactics to frustrate the matter in court, he was found guilty of abuse of office and corrupt diversion of about $27m of public funds to personal use. Sequel to the conviction, President Zuma apologised and offered to make refunds of some $16m to the public treasury.
Sometime in the middle of 2017, Zuma was again to get involved in yet another scandal. Some email leaks implicated the influential Indian family, the Guptas, in a “state capture” allegation. This family was accused of influencing the appointment of some key government functionaries and illegal award of juicy contracts to themselves (and most likely those they represent). This scandal led to attempts by leaders of the party to force Zuma out. All the efforts, however, hit a brick wall as parliament was unable to muster enough support to pass a vote of no confidence on the President. There is no doubt that Zuma understood how to manipulate his way to remain in power and this worked for a while. As should have been known by now, manipulation can work for a while, but in the final analysis, it fails. It was therefore, time for it to fail and on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2018, Jacob Zuma whose middle name means “one who smiles while causing others harm” had to this time around be at the receiving end of the harm as South Africans were able to smile for the first time in almost a decade. Cyril Ramaphosa became the beneficiary of Zuma’s fall and was sworn in on the 15th of February as his successor. Ramaphosa was actually the person that Nelson Mandela favoured to succeed him.
Are there lessons to learn from the South African experience? I believe there are and I believe that there are also similarities between our experience and that of South Africa. Somehow, society has a way of throwing up some of its worst into leadership positions. Other than participating in the militant wing of the ANC, just like being in the military, there was no reason why the country should elect Zuma as its President. Having made the mistake of electing him, there was also no reason why he should have been there for nine years given the close to 700 corruption cases hanging like a Sword of Damocles over his head. That he was able to work his way around them and still hung on to power for that number of years, remains a mystery. Just before his ouster, there had been about 6 votes of no confidence in the parliament, sponsored by the Opposition, which did not see the light of the day. Basically, this was because the ANC, which holds the majority in Parliament, would not support those Bills. He was only made to leave because the party had withdrawn its support from him. This clearly reveals a very sharp difference from what we have in Nigeria. The Zuma episode demonstrates the supremacy of the party in South Africa, even if it came too late. When the Party decided that it had had enough of Zuma, it took a decision and removed him. Our experience in Nigeria is that because leadership of the parties is under the President, it is difficult for party supremacy to function in Nigeria. If anything, what we have is Presidential Supremacy and sometimes, both the party and the President would be deluding themselves in the face of national crises until both of them fall like a pack of cards.
The second lesson, and which is enduring in itself, is that at the end of the day, the will of the people must prevail, no matter how much manipulation and filibustering that the party and its President embark on. It may take time, but somehow, someday, good will always triumph over evil. This was clearly demonstrated in the Zuma case. It is also true of the case of Zimbabwe where Robert Mugabe held sway for decades, yet his dynasty was toppled by the collective will of the people.
Again, in the contest between strong men and strong institutions, the latter will always prevail. It may take time, but strong men have expiry dates, strong institutions don’t. It is therefore imperative to focus on building strong institutions and deemphasize strong men. History records that strong men, if not checked, eventually become despotic and may not know when the line is crossed. Even when they are good, their legacy may be dismantled shortly after they are gone if there are no institutions to protect them and build on what they had achieved.
Because power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, those whose responsibility it is to make laws should always make laws that do not put absolute powers in the hands of one man, no matter what role they want him to play. There must be clear checks and balances. The constitution that Nigeria is forced to operate since 1999 is very defective. The President has too much power such that one President had remarked that if he used 30% of his power, his opponents would be in serious trouble. Talking about opponents, it is very clear from the South African example that strong and virile opposition is critical for a successful democracy. Virtually all failed previous attempts to oust Zuma were sponsored by the Opposition because not only does it exist, it is effective. There is still confusion here in Nigeria, as to whether opposition exists and if it does, if it understands its role in the political process.
The most important lesson to learn is that governance is about the governed and not government. It is not a spectator sport! The governed must therefore show interest in how they are governed. Like I had written in my previous interventions, we seem to be very docile and unconcerned about how we are governed. That has made underperforming governments remain very comfortable. This is true of local governments, it is true of State governments and it is also true of the government at the center. Sometimes, when we do get interested, we are more concerned about the Federal government and seem to forget that the other tiers of government should also be put to even greater scrutiny as their activities should affect us more. Some of our leaders get away with so much incompetence and malfeasance because we don’t seem to know the right questions to ask and sometimes, they (and even we), forget that they are accountable to us. The case of the local governments is even more pathetic. Because some governors have captured the local government system by appointing their cronies and thugs as Chairmen and Councilors, those appointees only account to their principals and show up to the people only during election time where their main role is to deliver their benefactors and their parties. Once that is done, you would only hear from them again in the next four years. The point being made here is that the actions and inactions of leaders at any level affect the people most. The people, therefore, should move away from their present state of docility to the level of activism so that leaders can sit up.
I must congratulate South Africans for rising to the occasion and taking their destiny in their own hands, even if it ought to have happened nine years ago. Like it is said, it is better late than never. On the issue of the Zuma Statue still standing in Owerri, I shall leave that matter to “Uncle Roche” to determine what to do with it. My sense is that if he chooses to do nothing, as he leaves in one year, the people of Imo State may decide to do something. It would be up to them, what that would be.