First families feeding at the trough

2010-09-11 16:21

If Mo Ibrahim or anyone else wanted to give a leadership prize for the class of 2010 African leaders, they would have to look long and hard to find a worthy candidate.

From Cape Town to Cairo, what looked like a blemish from a fading era now seems to be haunting the continent’s landscape with a fury. Are we back in the era of the treasury as the “Big Man’s Piggy Bank?”

I am unsure how President Jacob Zuma would answer, but those on the continent who have been looking up to his country for leadership can hardly be ­impressed by the news from ­Johannesburg.

Reports I have read suggest that Khulubuse Zuma, a former taxi ­operator and the president’s nephew, has hit the jackpot, as has the president’s son, Duduzane.

Zuma emerged as president under very difficult circumstances, barely escaping indictment for corruption.

His enemies expected the worst of him. A number of editorials in Nigerian newspapers, for ­example, expressed regret that Thabo Mbeki’s aloofness had cost him his job.

But they also warned that Zuma would require more than populism to meet the demands of his office – he would require character and competence, which seem to be in short supply on the continent.

Is he living out his enemies’ worst fears, then?

Zuma may have done well for the Zumas in record time, but I’m not sure he was elected to lead his family to the trough.

Question is, does he have the ­incentive to rein in the brood when it appears he is in good company along with some other “African brothers?”

Shortly after President Jose ­Eduardo dos Santos declared ­“zero tolerance” on corruption in ­Angola last November, newspapers in Luanda published stories of a raft of shady business deals ­involving the first family.

The president’s eldest daughter, Isabel, was ­reported to hold stakes in some of the biggest firms in sectors ranging from banking to ­telecommunications.

In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s nephew and one of the numerous trough blazers, Philip Chiyangwa, showed off his Rolls-Royce and 35-room mansion, described by Philip’s wife in a BBC ­interview last February as “a gift and a blessing from God” – even though she ­acknowledged that she knew the people were hungry.

Whether in Senegal, where President Abdoulaye Wade’s son, Karim, is battling allegations of a $200-million (R1.5-billion) kickback from Millicom, a telecommunications company; in Equatorial Guinea, where President Teodorin Nguema Obiang’s son shelled out millions on a Bentley four years ago; in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak’s son vigorously courts the Sawiris (owners of Orascom telecoms); or in ­Nigeria, where Sani Abacha’s children want to ­retain $350 million illegally transferred by their father when he was military head of state, one thing appears common: trough blazers make no distinction between the treasury and the family’s piggy bank.

Trough-feeding not only crowds out the weak and the vulnerable, it distorts the value system and sends the signal that connection rather than competence is what matters.

The temptation to trough-feed is neither new nor common to Africa.

In his book, from Third World to First, for ­example, Singapore’s former premier, Lee Kuan Yew, ­describes how he resisted the temptation to promote his son to the deputy premiership shortly before he stepped down, even though his son was qualified for the office and had worked his way up the party ranks.

“He would be seen as having inherited the ­office from me when he should deserve the position on his own merit,” Yew wrote.

However loudly Zuma and others might protest their innocence, the burden of public office is not only to do the right thing, but to be seen to be doing it.

Will the entrapments of office ­permit them to see the difference and rein in the brood?

That is the billion-dollar question.

» Ishiekwene is a former executive editor of Punch newspaper and a Nigerian analyst.

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