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Opinion / Editorial

Panama Papers, President Zuma and the DNA of Corruption – by Reuben Abati

Reuben Abati
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Where corruption is involved, African leaders seem to be utterly beyond shock. Blacks folks in office often regard as normal business, the kind of infractions that draw alarm and apologetic resignations in other parts of the world. This is not meant to be a racist comment, but it is curious that the African sense of shock is mediated so often and so conveniently by other considerations, including politics, ethnicity, religion, and a certain lack of a feeling of shame: that measure of restraint that defines the idea of being human.

Two major scandals in the international arena in the last week would seem to prove the point. The first is the leakage of troves of documents, now known as the Panama Papers, revealing how the rich including world leaders, celebrities, public officials and business men, have over the years hidden away their wealth in tax havens with the help of a Panama-based law firm, Mossack Fonseca. While the consultants and the persons and companies involved have alleged that there is really nothing illegal in what they may have done, to the extent that tax avoidance is not a crime (it is the evasion that is a crime, although this looks like a matter of definition), there have been indications of money laundering and corrupt dealings involving public officials. The unfolding scandal has already resulted in the resignation of the Prime Minister of Iceland, and of an Austrian bank Chief, Michael Grahammer. Russian President Vladimir Putin also has questions to answer.

But across Africa, and particularly in Nigeria, all the persons who have been mentioned in this global scandal have been totally indifferent. Governments across the world are already investigating their nationals mentioned in the scandal and here, civil society groups are also calling on the relevant authorities to do the same. But nobody should imagine that anyone involved, and currently holding public office, would feel tempted in any way to either own up or resign or lose an hour of sleep.

As it is in Nigeria, so it is in the other African countries where persons have been fingered: South Africa- Jacob Zuma’s nephew, Hulubuse Zuma, Kenya- Deputy Chief Justice Kalpana Rawal, Nigeria: James Ibori, Bukola and Toyin Saraki, Democratic Republic of Congo- President Joseph Kabila’s twin sister, Jaynet Desiree Kabila Kyungu, Angola- Petroleum Minister Botello de Vasconcelos, Ghana- John Ado Kufuor, Kojo Annan; Morocco- Mounir Majidi, Botswana: Ian Kirby; Egypt- Alaa Mubarak, Sudan- former President Ahmad Al-Mirghani, Cote d’Ivoire- Jean Claude Ametchi, Senegal – Mamadou Pouye… Whereas it is possible to bet that in the affected Western nations, this massive leakage of data would be investigated and the list of casualties is bound to be long, it is also possible to bet that in our continent, there may be no investigations, or nothing substantial would come out of it. Why do our folks in Africa find it so easy to overlook impunity? And even sometimes celebrate it. The South African authorities have promised an investigation, yes, but who knows what that will bring?

The Panama Papers leak proves one point: that the rich all over the world are the same- they are greedy and they will rather cheat the system. They want to hide their wealth from the tax man and they will go to any length to do so. The global capitalist system is so skewed against the poor; he is permanently left with the short end of the stick. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer because the rich can hide their wealth in such filthy hide outs as the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, and Panama, the most notorious offshore location, and by so doing avoid the payment of all forms of taxes. Suddeutsche Zeitung, the German newspaper, got the Panama documents from an anonymous whistle blower, who probably chose to be anonymous having learnt from the travails of the Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange.

But thank God all the same for whistle-blowers, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) who have shown the rich that offshore financial secrecy is no longer fool-proof. Developing and underdeveloped countries are certainly worst hit by the hiding of funds away from national jurisdictions by the rich: most of it stolen money, or perhaps, illegally acquired wealth. The Panama leaks, like the Cayman Islands leak of 2013, is a reminder that in an increasingly global village, there may be no more hiding places for the rich. It holds them accountable to a globally sanctioned moral standard. The rich and the powerful don’t like to be exposed. We know this to be a fact and the Nigerian names that have been mentioned can only reinforce what we already know: that the rich and the privileged in Nigeria will go to any length to amass, protect and hide their riches, at the expense of the sovereign, There is practically no difference between those who hide dirty money in overhead tanks and soak-aways and those who go all the way to Panama.

Developing countries are handicapped in this kind of situation by institutional and moral deficits, but the relevant authorities in Nigeria must not sweep this under the carpet or be indifferent to the Panama revelations. Basic questions should be asked: has there been any wrong-doing? Is the money clean or dirty? And can the public officials and their agents involved legitimately hide money in offshore secret accounts? What business brought them the hidden wealth? Did they make necessary disclosures? And do they pay tax?

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This last point is the crux of the matter. The rich in Nigeria enjoy all the privileges of being rich and influential, but they hardly give back to society. We have over the years created a parasitic class of rich men and women who become important by having the right connections and by being in the right places at the right time. They occupy “juicy” public positions or they set up businesses through which they get generous import and tax waivers, or they get gifted with oil blocks and marginal fields or government assets sold off for nothing, and yet this same class oppresses the rest of society, and cleverly sends its amassed wealth offshore. They milk the country, they hardly pay back; the less vicious amongst them put up appearances of generosity, but it is sheer pretence: too many people playing smart at great cost to Nigeria. I am surprised that some of them even know a place called Panama, even if they have no idea where it is on the map.

The Panama leak may end up as the graveyard of reputations: among the named, we have such international celebrities as Jackie Chan and the greatly talented Lionel Messi. But what will come out of it all from the African end? I still suspect nothing. And that takes me to the second scandal I alluded to earlier. It is the case of President Jacob Zuma of South Africa. This controversial President who has survived allegations of rape, corruption, domestic scandals and illicit business dealings has again just survived another corruption scandal that involved the South African Constitutional Court openly and expressly accusing him of violating the Constitution that he swore to uphold.

President Zuma spent close to $20 million of public funds to upgrade his private residence. His fingers were caught in the cookie jar, and although he tried to bluff his way through, the Constitutional Court has put him on the spot by declaring boldly that he cannot use the people’s money to upgrade his personal residence. The court ruled that he will have to return the misapplied funds to the South African treasury.

In saner climes, this would have been enough ground for impeachment. But Zuma survived. He has survived. The Big Six who run the African National Congress (ANC) and the party’s members in parliament, who constitute the majority, rallied round Zuma, and they have refused to impeach him. He is leading the party of Nelson Mandela into a moral ditch, and the new reality is that he is still in office after having been told to his face by the Constitutional Court that he is a thief. Zuma took the people’s money and gave himself a swimming pool, a chicken run, an amphitheatre, a visitors’ centre, and a cattle kraal, all in the name of security upgrades to his country home. The truth is that political leaders in Africa don’t see any difference between state and private wealth. When they are in charge, they exercise divine rights, the kind of divine rights associated with the monarchies of old. State wealth becomes theirs to be used by them and their cronies as they deem fit.

The South African Constitutional Court deserves a pat on the back and Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng commendation for his courage. In South Africa, they have a judiciary that can tell the Executive the truth. We desperately need that kind of judiciary in Nigeria: a judiciary that can tell people in government that they can only use their positions to advance state interests as opposed to personal interests. A judiciary that is strong enough to tell a President that he is not the sovereign and that the country is bigger than the President and his cronies.

If a random check were to be conducted, the transgression by President Jacob Zuma, using state funds to turn his Nkandla residence into a mini-paradise is something common and considered normal in Nigeria. Indeed, the house that is causing so much public discontent in South Africa looks like nothing considering the kind of palaces owned by low-ranking public officials in Nigeria. But public discontent is where the key lies. When the politicians disappoint the people, the people owe themselves a sacred duty not to disappoint themselves.

Jacob Zuma may cling to power by the force of political patronage, but his Presidency is diminished. With the many scandals around him, he has proven to be an unworthy inheritor of the Mandela legacy and it is only a question of time before his own legacy is properly defined and determined. He has apologized, and he says he will obey the court and make payments to the Treasury. But that is Africa for you. He may well get away with it all, the same way other African leaders have been getting away with criminality for decades.

Our point: the biggest threat to growth and development in Africa is the contempt with which African leaders treat the people and the audacity with which they get away with their contempt and audacity.


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