How many former African heads of state have a son who is in prison, accused of embezzling a half a billion euros? Speaking at a conference in Pretoria last week, former South African president Thabo Mbeki said he was saddened by the 'terrible story' that he recently heard while travelling in various West African countries. Those listening to his speech probably didn't have too much trouble guessing whom Mbeki was speaking about.
'I was asking myself, how does that happen? A desperately poor African country needing all of its resources, every single cent of it to make an impact and to change the quality of life of its citizens, but the son of the president steals at least a half a billion euros. How can that be?' Mbeki asked at the African Unity for Renaissance conference, organised by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO) and a number of South African universities in the run-up to Africa Day, which took place on 25 May.
Former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade's 45-year-old son, Karim, has been languishing in a Dakar jail since his arrest in April last year for allegedly embezzling state funds. His arrest followed his father's fall from grace, after losing in the 2012 elections. Initially, prosecutors estimated that he stole almost €2 billion, but the figure has since been revised to €518 million. Karim amassed his vast fortune, hidden away numerous bank accounts, when he was appointed as a 'super-minister' in charge of nearly all state business in Senegal.
Is there a genuine attempt by leaders like Mbeki to rid the continent of corruption?
Ironically, Abdoulaye Wade tried to upstage Mbeki in the early 2000s by launching the 'Omega Plan for Africa' to promote continental growth and development - more or less at the same time when Mbeki was working with other leaders on the New Partnership for Africa's Development (Nepad). Wade later abandoned Omega and joined the steering committee of Nepad, but relations between the two leaders were never very good. Today, Wade is reportedly trying to get his son out on bail before the start of his trial next month.
Was this Mbeki's way of getting back at his old rival? Or is there a genuine attempt by leaders like Mbeki to rid the continent of corruption and promote better leadership? Have the scandals that rock the continent, the demand for greater transparency, and public protests led to a rethink by those at the top?
Indications are that the South Sudan crisis, in particular, has had a profound impact on the way that Mbeki and others see the destruction that can be caused by weak leadership.
The former South African president, who has been hailed as the champion of the African Renaissance, still plays a big role in mediating crises - like those between Sudan and South Sudan - on behalf of the African Union (AU). He has denied any wrongdoing in the infamous arms deal scandal that happened on his watch, but has been criticised for his lack of action when democracy was being dealt a fatal blow in neighbouring Zimbabwe.
He refused, even in closed discussions of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), to speak out against Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe. Yet speaking about South Sudan he said the 'terrible war' that started in December last year between supporters of former South Sudanese vice-president Riek Machar and the government of President Salva Kiir was 'eminently avoidable and unnecessary.' 'The destruction that has been caused and the damage done to South Sudanese society for many years to come is due mainly to the failure of leadership,' he said.
Also last week, during a debate at the annual meeting of the African Development Bank (AfDB) in Kigali, Rwanda, leaders reportedly had a gloves-off discussion about the issue of leadership and corruption. South Sudan was used as an example of the severe damage caused by conflicts on the continent. AfDB President Donald Kaberuka told delegates that the bank had just approved a loan of $25 million to South Sudan for electrification in Juba, the capital, when war broke out. Kaberuka said this was an example of where security directly impacts on the efforts made for economic development.
The damage done to South Sudanese society is due mainly to the failure of leadership
On Friday 23 May, the former secretary general for the Organisation for African Unity (OAU), Salim Ahmed Salim, also spoke about leadership when he delivered the annual Thabo Mbeki Foundation Africa Day lecture. 'All those who lead - at whatever level, but especially as national leaders - must be held accountable and act in a manner that makes them truly servants of the people who have elected them to power,' he said in his speech entitled 'Defining a leadership paradigm for a new Africa.'
For years, the Assembly of the AU has been seen as a club of leaders who are reluctant to point fingers and expose wrongdoing by their peers. The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM), spearheaded by Mbeki, raised hopes that this would change. Instead of being judged by non-African institutions and Western-funded non-governmental organisations, the aim was to create an African-led process to identify problems and make suggestions on how to correct them.
During his speech last week, Mbeki admitted that when discussing solutions to the problem of leadership, 'the critical process of the APRM was mentioned.' He admitted, however, that the APRM remains limited to the states that agree to participate. So far, in the more than 10 years of its existence, only 17 out of Africa's 54 states have undergone a peer review by the APRM. Ultimately, the process has been bogged down by lengthy bureaucracy and unwillingness by some governments, including South Africa, to release the findings of the APRM reviews in a timely manner.
To an extent - at least in terms of visibility and media interest - the APRM has been overtaken by the careful assessments of leadership and governance done by the Mo Ibrahim Foundation. The Sudanese businessman, who was also reportedly at the Kigali discussions, has become a symbol of efforts to promote good leadership through the US$5 million annual prize for leadership. Unfortunately for Mbeki, even though he has been out of power for quite some time now, his presidency hasn't yet been considered worthy of the prize. Perhaps his plans and ideas to promote clean governance will nevertheless inspire a new generation.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant