The indictment of Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, holds lessons for Nigeria

Some major political and judicial events happened in South Africa recently that strengthened the faith of their citizens in critical institutions of government which Nigeria should learn from.

First, against all attempts by President Jacob Zuma to influence the outcome of a corruption case against him, the country’s Supreme Court ruled that he had contravened the constitution by failing to refund some of the money spent on “security upgrades” at his personal home in Nkandla, KwaZulu-Natal. The project, which was said to have cost the country’s taxpayers $24 million, included a chicken run, cattle enclosure, an amphitheatre and a swimming pool.

It all started when in 2014 a detailed report by the South African government-appointed public protector, Thuli Madonsela, found that the controversial president and his family had “unduly benefitted” from the renovation of his personal residence, and ordered him to refund part of the money. But Zuma used his office to frustrate the case for two years.

However, after the recent verdict of the South African Supreme Court, Zuma apologised to the nation in a national television address, for what he termed the “frustration and confusion” caused by the affair, even though he was quick to state that he had no plan to resign. He, nevertheless, promised to pay back some of the money as ordered by the court.

Yes, Zuma was expected to effortlessly survive an impeachment move against him in the country’s parliament because of the overwhelming majority of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). But the court ruling that forced the South African president to accept he acted wrongly was a shining example of how strong and effective institutions in civilised democracies around the world help to discipline corrupt public officers while compelling them to be open, transparent and accountable to the people in line with the dictates of a representative democracy.

Until the court ruling, Zuma had publicly insisted he did nothing wrong and had arrogantly carried on as if he was above the law. In his letter of September 11, 2014, the South African president had argued that the public protector’s role was like that of an ombudsman and could not issue “judgments to be followed under pain of a contempt order.” Zuma had described the report which indicted him as “useful tools in assisting democracy in a cooperative manner, sometimes rather forcefully”. Yet, he stated that he was under no obligation to accept the outcome of such inquisition.

However, the Supreme Court forced him to humble himself and by his indictment, the court told him clearly that he is not above the law. But the pertinent question is: had this happened in Nigeria, would anything have come out of it?

We do not think so for a number of reasons. One, it is doubtful if a government-appointed prosecutor would dare to pursue a sitting president in court the way Zuma was held to account. Two, even if by some miracle such happened, it is most likely that the case would be frustrated in court by a web of conspiracy between the prosecution, the defence and the trial judge.

We have stated on this page over and over again that to entrench our democracy, we need strong, effective and robust institutions that can curb the antics of notorious public officials who have scant regard for the law. That is what the South African Supreme Court has demonstrated with its ruling on President Zuma. We hope our Supreme Court and other courts in the country will take a cue from such a courageous decision.