It was a giddy leap to sainthood for South African President Jacob Zuma in Nigeria penultimate weekend. His country is Nigeria’s power peer in sub-Sahara Africa, if presumptuous to rule in the entire continent. But Zuma came calling, not as a state guest of his Nigerian counterpart, but in quasi-private capacity on the fare of Imo State Governor Rochas Okorocha. He came unheralded on a visit that has since been duly explained was to sign a memorandum of understanding between his Zuma Foundation and Okorocha’s Rochas Foundation College for Africa.
Zuma arrived in town amidst controversy as had dogged his eight-year-long presidency, during which he has survived eight no-confidence votes in the South African parliament. His trip was not made public in Pretoria until he was nearly airborne, and neither was there much hype of imminent ingress of a personage like him in Nigeria – at least, not enough for the public to be expectant.
Besides, the South African leader hit the skies en route the Okorocha rendezvous barely as his country’s supreme court pronounced a unanimous verdict binding him to trial for 783 corruption charges that were spuriously pulled by the National Prosecuting Agency (NPA) in April 2009 to pave the way for his presidential run. A South African high court had last year ruled the agency’s decision to pull the charges “irrational” and ordered that they be reinstated, and those were exact conclusions reached by the supreme court in its ruling on appeals brought by both Zuma and the NPA against the trial court.
Zuma’s scheduling of the Nigerian trip must have been long before the supreme court verdict, so I do not share the umbrage at Okorocha for not barring him on that score. Actually, I would wager that the last minute change was made in the plans to keep the Buhari presidency out of reception formalities. Thus, the South African leader flew directly into Sam Mbakwe Airport in Owerri, where the Imo governor in company with former President Olusegun Obasanjo received him. Others in the welcoming party included former Jigawa State Governor Saminu Turaki and former Independent National Electoral Commission Chairman Maurice Iwu.
By the norms of diplomacy, it is unlikely the president originally planned to avoid Zuma on this trip; because President Muhammadu Buhari twice visited South Africa for different reasons in 2015, and he had the audience on both occasions with his South African counterpart. Though Zuma had himself undertaken a state visit to Nigeria in 2016, diplomatic conventions would prescribe he schedules a tangential audience with Buhari even on this occasion. Only a last minute rejig of programming could have eliminated that.
But while Okorocha could not have upturned the long-scheduled visit by Zuma, it was entirely his call what the two-day reception programme involved. And we have seen it involved unveiling a giant bronze statue of the South African leader in Imo’s capital city, to which a N520million price tag has been attached in reports. Instructively, the Imo government has not controverted that cost line even once.
An official account of the visit said Zuma also picked the Imo Merit Award – an honor kept for persons who’ve made a difference in developing their community and humanity; and as well the traditional title of ‘Ochiagha Imo’ conferred by the chairman of Imo State Council of Traditional Rulers, Eze Samuel Ohiri. For icing, he also had a road named after him in Owerri.
The account cited Zuma saying he had not expected that level of recognition. “With what the leadership and good people of Imo has done, I feel that what I have done for my people is ‘yes’ and ‘correct.’ I was an ordinary freedom fighter who struggled to liberate South Africa…,” he stated. Okorocha, for his part, described Zuma as a unique man with a heart of gold, and a dogged freedom fighter who means well for his people. “We honor you because of your love for education so that our unborn children will read about it and be motivated by your life of doggedness…,” he said.
The two men could well have spoken from a virgin planet named Illusion, because Nigerians and no less, zestfully South Africans were swift in taking down Zuma and his host for the gratuitous honors. That response follows from the sheer circumstances. Zuma is a charismatic politician with reputed antecedents in his country’s liberation struggle against apartheid rule, but his presidency stank of sleaze from Day One – both in his public and private lives. Besides the corruption charges linked to a 30billion rand arms deal in the 1990s that were lately reinstated by the supreme court, he fell under the judicial hammer in 2016 when the apex court ruled that he broke the law by failing to reimburse the public treasury monies used to upgrade his private country home in Nkandla. He has since repaid.
Also this year, South Africa’s ombudsman demanded a judge-led inquiry into allegations that Zuma profiteered from ties with the wealthy Gupta family. He denies the charges, as have the Guptas, and no inquiry has yet been raised. But British public relations giant Bell Pottinger, ace auditor KPMG, and frontline consultancy McKinsey have bit the dust on account of their links with both. That isn’t mentioning the economic hara-kiri in Zuma’s ouster of Pravin Gordhan as finance minister in March, which tipped the country’s credit ratings into ‘junk’ territory.
Neither is Zuma exactly a moral beacon. Having married six wives – two since becoming president in 2009 – he was tried but acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend in 2006. The catch is: he was blameless on the rape charge because he stated during the trial that he had unprotected sex with the woman and showered thereafter to avoid possible infection. Four years later, he admitted having a baby with the daughter of another family friend. Meanwhile, his populist touch hasn’t translated into economic empowerment for most black South Africans, with his hold and that of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) on the power lever rapidly slipping. In effect, the unveiling of a Zuma statue earlier this month in Groot Marico, northwest South Africa, was met with protests.
On the other hand, Okorocha is famed for withholding arrears to pensioners in Imo State, and it is moot that salaries and allowances for serving workers are up to date. Yet, to have spend N520million of the state’s lean resources on Zuma’s statue! The probity of that stated costline is one thing, while the economic sense of the expenditure is another; and neither helps the anti-corruption crusade of the Buhari presidency whose party, the All Progressives Congress (APC), has Okorocha as chairman of its Governors Forum. Besides, the value judgment is curious, with repeated xenophobic attacks in Zuma’s country that have claimed the lives of many Nigerians – one of them as recent as few days before the Imo spectacle.
But the biggest tragedy is the partisan mode into which Okorocha and the APC have retreated. APC helmsman John Odigie-Oyegun was reported last week to have endorsed the Zuma event, praising Okorocha for his “feat in bringing…significant figures on the African continent.” Okorocha, for his part, lashed at the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP), which it accused of sponsoring the criticisms. “If all we need do to attract good things or investments to Imo is erecting statues…we owe no one apology,” he was reported saying.
With show fests like, we saw in Imo, and the uppity endorsement of these by the ruling party, the Buhari government’s anti-graft war is unravelling. Watch out for that indication in the next outing by Transparency International with its Corruption Perception Index (CPI).