Defend Truth


All corrupt presidents and leaders must face prosecution, no matter where they are in the world


Professor Dr Omphemetse S Sibanda is a Professor of Law and the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Management and Law at the University of Limpopo. He holds a Doctor of Laws (in International Economic Law) from North West University, a Master of Laws from Georgetown University Law Centre, US; and an LLB (Hon) and B Juris from the then Vista University, Soweto Campus.

Jacob Zuma is not the first, nor the last, former president to try to secure immunity from prosecution on corruption charges. The world is replete with corrupt and unaccountable leaders who thrive on dictatorial tendencies.

The beauty of discourse lies in opinion engendering debate and different views. My recent article in Daily Maverick on Jacob Zuma and dictators generated interesting reviews given the political landscape in South Africa. But, I may have been misunderstood by others or perhaps my viewpoint was shrouded in ambiguity. In particular, one comment reads as follows:

“A good article. I fail to see, however, why the author seems to think that this applied especially to Africa when we have leaders across the globe (Brazil, Philippines, Hungary et al), that are travelling the same path.”

The crux of my article was that the “Zuma Theory of Dictatorship by Design”, and his advocacy for “the political principle of blanket presidential impunity from prosecution”, should never be allowed to fester in South Africa, or anywhere in the world for that matter. Reference to Africa as a “hotspot” for corrupt dictators and tyrants in no way suggested that imperial and corrupt leaders exist only in Africa. South Africa must at least take the better legal, constitutional and moral high ground by not cowering in holding executive members accountable.

Admittedly, the world is replete with corrupt and unaccountable leaders who thrive on dictatorial tendencies. You have, for example, the case of Slobodan Milosevic that also featured South Africa in its complexity. Milosevic was the President of Serbia/Yugoslavia from 1989 – 2000 and was alleged to have embezzled $1-billion during his 11 years in office. Some of Milosevic’s loot is believed to have been laundered through several Cypriot front companies in many countries, including South Africa. 

Another corrupt leader was Ferdinand Marcos, president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, who embezzled between $5-billion and $10-billion.  These dictators and corrupt leaders always first endear themselves to ordinary members of the public, portraying themselves as heroes and heroines before fleecing the public purse. 

Marcos fashioned himself as a war hero for the Filipinos. But, during his 21 years in power, the Philippines descended into one of the most heavily indebted countries in Asia with increased external debts from $360-million (in 1962) to $28-billion (by 1986). The number of people living below the poverty line almost doubled from 18 million to 35 million.

One of the most brazen thefts from the state by a sitting leader of a country was by Pavlo Lazarenko, Prime Minister of Ukraine from 1996 to 1997, who was found by the United Nations to have siphoned off $200-million during his short two-year period as leader of Ukraine. 

In December 2008, Lazarenko was arrested by Swiss authorities on money laundering charges. A few months later Ukraine stripped him of his immunity, and he subsequently fled to the US where he was charged on 53 counts of conspiracy, money laundering, wire fraud and interstate transportation of stolen property. Ukraine did not allow him to benefit from his illicit gains, no matter how much he was once loved as prime minister.

In 2001, Ukraine initiated asset recovery cases in Liechtenstein (amount unspecified), Antigua and Barbuda ($87.1-million), the United States ($271-million), Guernsey ($150-million), Lithuania ($29-million) and Switzerland ($5.4-million). 

Frankly, I hold no torch for Ramaphosa and I am also disappointed at the rate at which clean government and accountability are promoted under his presidency. However, it is my firm view that in his timid way, Ramaphosa has shown some commitment to disentangle South Africa from corruption and lack of accountability in the ANC-led government.

A notable fact for this discussion is that Ukraine is one of the post-communist countries in Eastern Europe that like South Africa suffered State Capture by oligarchs to benefit their own families and businesses. One commentator notes that since the Euromaidan uprising of 2013/2014, the Ukraine authorities have sought to make positive reforms and to break free from State Capture, but that these moves have been met with opposition from oligarchs.

The US has had its share of rogue leaders and corrupt executives. However, its criminal justice system has shown some resolve in acting against government officials for corruption and corrupt activities. For instance, as far back as 1904, Joseph Ralph Burton, a lawyer and United States Senator from the state of Kansas was convicted of accepting a $2,500 bribe for abusing his trading in influence. 

The Watergate Scandal during 1972–1973 under the presidency of Richard Nixon led to 69 government officials being charged, with 48 subsequently pleading guilty and Nixon resigning from his position.

Back to the comments on my article: another comment seems to suggest that the country is being soft on President Cyril Ramaphosa. “Why do we seem blind to the wrongs committed by our sitting president? Privy to everything Zuma has done, is he not also guilty of innumerable moral, legal and unconstitutional missteps? What makes him different from any other corrupt cadre?” read one comment. 

Frankly, I hold no torch for Ramaphosa and I am also disappointed at the rate at which clean government and accountability are promoted under his presidency. However, it is my firm view that in his timid way, Ramaphosa has shown some commitment to disentangle South Africa from corruption and lack of accountability in the ANC-led government.

The “Zuma Theory of Dictatorship by Design” and “the political principle of blanket presidential impunity from prosecution” is incompatible with the normative framework of the African Union (AU). The AU, on paper, has a clear path towards the inculcation of executive accountability and eradication of corruption.

On 18 December 2019, the AU released a report titled The Africa Governance Report: Promoting African Union Shared Values. It is clear in this report that the AU is weary of creating untouchable leaders – current and former – and is against the “Theory of Dictators by Design”. 

To this end, the AU calls for constitutionalism and the rule of law, with the law forming the “basis for political decision-making and administrative action”, and not the popularity of executives. The AU report calls for “accountability of the three arms of government to the public” and “accountability and effectiveness of the bureaucracy” among others.

The AU report further informs that constitutionalism and the rule of law must be dovetailed by transformative leadership. “Transformative Leadership refers to leadership that brings about radical change and engenders widespread improvements in peoples’ lives,” notes the report.

Unaccountable leaders with blanket immunity from criminal prosecution and civil liability never gear their leadership towards positive national change and people centredness. For them, it is primarily politics of the stomach and enrichment of family, cronies and friends. Honesty and integrity are very distant from their minds.

A number of the AU’s anti-corruption instruments and efforts will be futile if we take away accountability as one of the requirements for being a leader of a country. Notable of these are the “Common African Position on Asset Recovery (Capar)” unanimously adopted by the heads of state and government of the AU at their 33rd Assembly held on 9–10 February 2020 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 

The other is the “AU Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption (CPCC)”, which was adopted to tackle corruption and impunity for wrongdoers. Resolution 344 on the fight against impunity in Africa – ACHPR/Res.344(LVIII)2016 – means impunity will also be lost to unaccountable leaders.

Former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo once challenged leaders of the AU member countries to denounce acts of impunity and corruption in governance. The Obasanjo call is contrary to Zuma’s advocacy for blanket impunity for presidents. Again, with such an approach, Africa risks creating rogue presidents who are key to criminality and the perpetration of atrocities in Africa.

Accountability has nothing to do with imperialism and the apparent bias of international institutions such as the International Criminal Court. It is about ensuring justice and rule of law, otherwise former leaders like former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir – whose lack of accountability and cult figure saw the prevalence of crimes against humanity and genocide in Sudan – look like angels. DM


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