In ex-President Jacob Zuma’s jailing for 15 months by South Africa’s Constitutional Court, Africa and humanity in general are dragged to school by the nape of their dresses. Author of celebrated Yoruba classic, Igbi Aye Nyi – Life swivels like a wind – Chief T. A. A. Ladele, had earlier taught the world one or two of the Zuma lessons. Written in 1978, Ladele, an Okeho, Oyo State-born History teacher at Durbar College, Oyo and pioneer Headmaster of Baptist School, Iwere-Ile, was one of Nigeria’s early writers. In, Igbi Aye Nyi, the 1920-born writer sought to teach us all about the ephemeral worth of political power and the unenduring texture of raw brawn.
Set in a town called Otolu at the outset of colonial incursion into Nigeria, Oba Bankarere, the Otolu king, in concert with his sons, inflicted huge terror on his subjects through excessive wielding of power. He flaunted the wealth that accrued from power and defied all known societal norms. Two of Oba Bankarere’s subjects however rose to save the sanity of the traditional institution and the lives of the people. In the end, the colonial government waded in to curtail these excesses in a manner that rubbished the king and curtailed his outlaw sons.
Though it is not known whether Zuma’s son, Emmanuel shared same outlawry with the sons of Oba Bankarere while he was in power from 2009 to 2018, Zuma was the Oba reincarnate in profligacy and amassment of ill-gotten wealth. He deployed his grips on political power as an enabler of access to the purse and wealth of the state.
The former president was also showcased as a moral dis-advertisement with his amoral relationship with the opposite sex. It began with his charge in 2005 for raping AIDS patient and activist, Fezekile Ntsukela Kuzwayo via unprotected sex. The 31-year old family friend of his, who used the alias Khwezi during trial to protect her identity, had alleged that the rape took place in Zuma’s Forest Town, Johannesburg home but the court eventually freed Zuma, ruling that the sex was consensual.
In 1999, Zuma faced a multi-billion dollar arms deal charge and in the same year, a court-ordered 18-count corruption charge. In 2016, a court ruled that he diverted government money to upgrade his Nkandla private property which he later repaid to government coffers. Yet another 2017 inquiry came up alleging that Zuma unduly profited from an incongruous relationship with the renowned and wealthy Gupta family. In all these, Zuma wore a coat of many blemishes, apology to American singer, Dolly Parton.
This is not to talk of an inquiry set up to look into allegations that he looted the South African treasury in 2018. Another National Prosecuting Authority’s 12-count charges against him for fraud, racketeering, corruption, money laundering and arms deal threatened to unseat him. The height of it all was his sentencing for 15 months for his refusal to honour a commission’s invitation to him to testify in matters of state looting. He is right now in the Estcourt Prison, a jailhouse he built. It also must be noted that many of these trials took place while he was president.
Zuma’s jailing is a double-edged sword for Africa. While it disclaimed Trevor-Roper and other imperialist historians who said Africa had no history and insinuated that the continent’s gene was deleteriously different from the rest of the world’s, his sentencing shows the world that Africa also possesses strong institutions that can deal with its reprobates.
However, on the other hand, arguments are canvassed to state that, but for the presence of whites and supremacists in Pretoria, left to Africans, South Africa would have gone bonkers like the rest of its ilk like Nigeria. Zuma acted this script when he refused to honour the court’s invitation and blatantly declined to hand himself over upon conviction. His son, Emmanuel, led a revolt against the state when he kept vigil by Zuma’s Nkandla homestead in rural KwaZulu-Natal province with a stick, threatening that there would be “blood on the floor” if the state attempted to arrest his father.
South Africa’s institutions have always been Rock of Gibraltar-imposing and solid. Not minding the global renown of her husband, Nelson Rolihlahla, as anti-apartheid revolutionary and political leader, who was by then imprisoned, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela underwent trial for murder on December 29, 1988 for the abduction and murder of 14-year old James Seipei (known as Stompie Sepei). Seipei and three other youths, members of the Mandela United Football Club, were said to have been alleged by Winnie of sexual abuse by Methodist church minister, Paul Verryn. They were tortured to admit same. In real terms, however, Winnie allegedly accused Seipei of being an informant, had him beaten to death and his battered body, pockmarked with stab wounds on his throat, was found on a football field on January 6, 1989.
Winnie was also in 1991 accused of murdering prominent Soweto doctor, Abu Baker Asvat, who examined Sepei. She was jailed six years and found culpable later in 1998 by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) for being “politically and morally accountable for the gross violations of human rights committed” and “responsible, by omission, for the commission of gross violations of human rights.” Winnie’s marital relationship with Mandela, South Africa’s iconic freedom fighter, did not swing the trials in her favour.
Of all the lessons Zuma’s term at Estcourt teaches or should teach Nigeria and its power wielders, two jut out. One is same conveyed by Ladele’s Igbi Aye Nyi and the other being that, until Nigeria begins to build strong institutions that can resist the Kabiyesi mentality of Nigerian political class, Nigeria will continue to regress on the ladder of social justice and equality. These have within them the kernel of what drives development in the world.
It is no longer a mere cant to submit that Nigerian political class seeks power to oppress fellow countrymen. In what has been posited as a flow into and carryover from traditional African cultural history which turns mere mortals into despots, the political class’ impunity with power is unimaginable. Elected and appointed men clone the imperial powers of the monarchical system, extort the state and live the unquestionable – Ka bi e o si – life of gross impunity lived by kings of yore. Their oppressive convoys and retinue of aides also reflect this carte blanche.
As William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was used to mirror the innate bestiality in man, Zuma’s greed, tendency to pervert laws and obscene acquisition are natural gravitation by the human flesh. In countries that jealously built their institutions to be above the whims of anyone, this human propensity is effectively tamed. In Nigeria, Smart Alecs that Nigerian political class are, have found clever ways to sidestep and subordinate laws, while manipulating them for their selfish usage.
Today in Nigeria, there is a set of laws for the rich and the powerful and another for the lowly and ordinary. Coupled with the unspeakable corruption in the Nigerian judiciary, the political class has literally castrated institutions, making Nigeria a perfect plot for George Orwell’s Animal Farm.
The Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission was set up by President Olusegun Obasanjo shortly after he was elected in 1999 and headed by Justice Chukwudifu Oputa. The panel summoned the trio of former military rulers, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida, and Abdulsalami Abubakar, to answer allegations bordering on rights abuses, summonses they flagrantly defied. Obasanjo had cloned similar one in South Africa, the TRC, which produced therapeutic healings from the trauma of Apartheid rule.
As Babangida refused the summons to answer questions on the 1986 parcel-bombing of Newswatch magazine editor, Dele Giwa, Buhari was found culpable, liable and accountable for his 1984 execution by firing squad of three suspected drug traffickers. They were 30-year old Lawal Ojuolape, 29-year old Bernard Ogedengbe and 26-year old Bartholomew Owoh, executed for an offence which, at the time it was committed, did not carry a capital punishment. World religious, civil rights, political, trade union leaders cried to Buhari, to no avail.
Abubakar was equally summoned to explain the murder in detention of billionaire winner of the June 12, 1993 election, MKO Abiola. The three former Heads of State subsequently approached the Appeal Court which voided the Oputa panel as strange to law. However, underground searchlight into the panel’s recommendation, like the judgment on Zuma, was that the three authoritarian military rulers should “be considered to have surrendered their right to govern Nigeria” having failed to honour subpoenas to appear before the commission. Buhari nevertheless went ahead to become Nigeria’s president. Babangida, on the other side, is convalescing in his imperial castle in Minna and Abdulsalami is junketing all over the world as Nigeria’s peace envoy to Liberia, Ivory Coast and Sudan. The three alleged clones of Zuma are today living happily ever thereafter.
Rather than build institutions, Nigeria builds persons whose representations die prematurely as soon as they crash politically or exit their high offices. We built Attahiru Muhammadu Jega, Dora Akunyili, Nuhu Ribadu and Ibrahim Magu, rather than building electoral, drug sanitizing and crime-fighting institutions. Yes, we can afford to have in power rotten cabbages like the Zumas, even with brimming maggots crawling all over their babanriga and agbada apparels, we however cannot afford a judiciary that has become bendable and pliable in the hands of politicians and the well-heeled. South Africa just demonstrated this by sending its former president to the Estcourt Prison.
The moment the judiciary as an institution becomes totally subsumed as it is as a tool in the hands of the powerful, then we can as well throw our hands unabashedly in the air in hopeless submission, close shop and call it a day. Give it to it, the Nigerian political class sometimes goes into purgatory once in a while by pushing tokenism as narrative of its redemption. This it does with the likes of Joshua Dariye, Orji Kalu, Farouk Lawan and a few others who were sent to our own Estcourt Prison. The larger narrative is however that Nigeria is a home of gross impunity which the judicial institution abets, with reckless abandon.
The other lesson that the Zuma travail teaches, as I said earlier, is that, as the holy writ sermonizes on human life, power is like vapour which whooshes in a moment but cannot be traced the next moment. When power-wielders build castles in the air as if life is their inheritance, they exhibit a palpable ignorance of life and lack of understanding of even the power in their hands.
The perishability of the human life should ordinarily teach leaders that they are not made of stronger stuff than the beggar on the street. Once breath vacates their nostrils and that of the beggar today, maggots will feed on the body of the beggar as it will on theirs. When they both go to the restroom to ease themselves, their excrements emit same foul odour, suggestive that they are both future venisons for maggots.
If we reckon with the above, why then do we confer unearned supremacy on life by tormenting our fellow man? As I have always maintained, of all human endowments – wealth, power, beauty and others – the most ephemeral is power. When it leaves, it leaves in totality. That is why the Yoruba would say, no one scurries off the road for a man who once drove a horse, except at the approach of one who is currently riding it. Power is that proverbial horse and it is spiritually structured to be used to benefit humanity and not to torment it. That is the lesson of Zuma in Estcourt prison.