By Sunny Awhefeada
One recurring thought or query that must be gnawing at the mind of former South African President, Jacob Zuma, now serving jail term, must be why he wasn’t a Nigerian where despite the ridiculous oddities that now encumber his name he would still be addressed as His Excellency! He would be ensconced in a hilltop mansion with countless number of rooms. He would eat amala or pounded yam or tuwo with a generous swamp of his choice soup or just anything that caught the fancy of his executive tongue. He would belch, smile, rub his shrinking pouch and have the idle luxury of picking his cloyed teeth. Meanwhile, hangers on and fortune seekers, among them soldiers and scholars, prophets and politicians, businessmen and babalawos, would lay siege to his gate waiting to see His Excellency for one favour or the other.
Hustling newspaper editors and hungry reporters would prime their ears to hear from His Excellency. Whatever he spits out, phlegm or prattle, will make news headlines the next day. His Excellency who ruined Nigeria yesterday is today referred to as a statesman and his views are thrown around like some elixir. His Excellency would never contemplate a day when he will appear before a panel, a commission or a court of law and not even in his wildest imagination or the most traumatic of nightmares would he think of going to jail. Unfortunately, Zuma is not a Nigerian and South Africa is not Nigeria! That is why he is now serving a jail term.
The world was surprised when Jacob Zuma emerged as President of South Africa in May 2009. Although, there were signs that he would emerge as President of the rainbow country, many thought that South Africa regressed in having Zuma as President. The sagely and looming image of Nelson Mandela, the Madiba, and the towering moral authority and intellectual visage of Thabo Nbeki run contrary to the attributes of the ridiculous jester in the person of Zuma. It was an anticlimax of the gains and heights attained by South Africa from 1994 to 2009. Jester Zuma as President was trailed by scandals before, in and out of office. Like his other African rulers who do no wrong in the eyes of the Law, he got away with many infractions until his recent capitulation. A contempt case arising from one of his many brushes with the law just earned him fifteen months in jail and he is an ageing and frail 79!
Zuma must truly be ruing the day he was born a South African. His ancestors should have been Nigerians from Owu or settlers in Minna. One of the early steps Olusegun Obasanjo took in his second coming as Nigeria’s ruler was to set up the National Human Rights Violation Commission popularly known as the “Oputa Panel”. It was chaired by Justice Chukwudifu Oputa the Socrates of the Nigerian Bench. The Commission was charged with the responsibility of looking into cases of human rights abuses from 1966 when the soldiers shot their way into power to 1999 when they retreated to the barracks. Aggrieved persons and lawyers thronged the venue of the sitting daily to tell their gory stories, seek redress and by extension closure. Accusing fingers pointed at former Nigerian rulers, living and dead.
The names of Obasanjo, Muhammadu Buhari, Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha became recurring phenomena at the Panels’ sittings. Complainants accused them of innumerable atrocities against the Nigerian state and individuals. They were accused of serial human rights violations including assassinations, executions and extrajudicial murders. A victim popped up in Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, the mother of the Kuti brothers (Koye, Beko and Fela) whom Obasanjo’s soldiers killed in 1978. Other victims manifested in Mamman Vatsa, Dele Giwa, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Kudirat Abiola and more. Grave and damning as the accusations were, Nigeria’s former ruining rulers shunned the Panel and refused to appear. Chief Gani Fawehinmi (SAN) did his jurisprudential best to get Babangida to appear before the Panel, but the later was firmer than the Rock of Gibraltar! Buhari and Obasanjo also ignored the Panel. Babangida went a step further to get a court of law to stop the report of the panel from being published. Yet, the same Babangida scoffed at judges and violated countless court orders while he presided over Nigeria as a military dictator.
It is to Nigeria’s unenviable lot that none of her many atrocious former rulers, heads of state or presidents, has ever crossed the portal of a jailhouse. None of them has even obeyed any court summons. Such a thing does not happen in Nigeria because Nigeria is not South Africa. The soldiers who rode roughshod over Nigerians from 1966 till 1999 had a field day after leaving office and have become the patron saints of today’s politicians instead of cooling off at Kirikiri or Okere. This is Nigeria! Tried as he did, immortal Fawehinmi couldn’t bring Babangida and his sidekicks to answer for crimes that happened under their watch. Nigerian judges also made themselves and the courts a laughing stock as they often fall over themselves to grant obnoxious injunctions in favour of the nation’s former dictators. Yes, had Zuma been a former Nigerian head of state or president, he would have sent a prancing Senior Advocate of Nigeria to one of the many courts that dot our landscape to seek an injunction which a yawning and belching judge will grant with immediate effect. Zuma would have had no need to go near the court house how much more surrendering himself to the police to serve a fifteen year jail term.
As Zuma spends time in jail, some benighted supporters took to violence and a looting spree followed. More than seventy people have died in the protests and many more have been arrested.
What is however important is that the law must run its course no matter whose ox is gored. South Africa is not a perfect country, but compared to Nigeria the place is a haven. The country evolved from the flames of Apartheid and built a consensus on what her future should be.
Fatherly Mandela helped to heal the wounds of the past, dour Mbeki was firm in giving a direction, then Zuma came and torpedoed the country from her sublime trajectory to a ridiculous theatre of the absurd.
Nigerians must rethink Nigeria and invent a direction for the future. Things will not forever remain as they are today. A new nation will emerge from this chaos and tragedy. That nation shall be founded on equity, fairness and justice. That nation shall thrive and one day there would be need to look back and audit the actions and inactions of all those that ruled and ruined Nigeria. That day must come. Whether alive or dead, they shall be put to trial and like Zuma they shall go to have their moment in the jail house if found culpable. That time might not be too far.