Deaths expose ill-gotten gains

HARARE - The death of Ethiopian prime minister, Meles Zenawi more than a week ago was the third loss of an African leader in the last few months.

The strongman’s demise came less than a month after that of Ghanaian president, John Atta Mills.

Mills in turn died  barely four months after Malawi’s head of state, Bingu wa Mutharika had succumbed to a heart attack.

Under normal circumstances leaders deserve to be mourned in a genuine and respectful manner.
But the “life presidency” syndrome prevalent in Africa means that corrupt, murderous and authoritarian leaders remain in power for up to 40 years.

This begs the question of whether after clinging to power for so long, the passing of such individuals can still spark genuine grief rather than relief among their repressed and impoverished people.

The spontaneous celebrations that erupted across Libya last year following the deposition and public lynching of Muammar Gaddafi by angry mobs highlight this reality and bring to mind scenes from William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

Immediately after an incredulous Caesar who asks “Et tu, Brute”, is stabbed to death in one scene, one of the conspirators, Cinna, shouts, “Liberty! Freedom! Tyranny  is dead. Run hence, proclaim, cry it about  the streets.”

This is echoed by Cassius who adds, “Some to the common pulpits and cry out liberty, freedom and enfranchisement!”

These words, which Shakespeare put into the mouths of characters in his classic play centuries ago accurately depict  the abuses leaders are guilty of even today.

An added ingredient scandalising oppressed and suffering populations in Africa is the discovery of the extent of the obscene wealth those in power amass at the expense of the people.

When a corrupt African president dies, whether after a short stint or many decades at the helm, citizens hold their breath in dreaded anticipation of the can of worms certain to open about the “Dear Leader’s” ill-gotten gains.

Controversy is raging in Malawi about Wa Mutharika’s assets and it remains to be seen whether the deaths of Atta Mills and Zenawi will not open similar pandora’s boxes.

Since Gaddafi’s death, the United Nations has frozen billions worth of the former dictator’s personal assets.

Other deceased leaders known to have plundered money and other resources from their countries include Omar Bongo of Gabon, Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and Nigeria’s former military dictator, Sani Abacha, who is believed to have siphoned off up to five billion dollars.

Some countries are fighting to recover such stolen national wealth  with the assistance of the World  Bank’s Stolen Asset Recovery (Star) programme, which was launched in 2007.

Tracking the proceeds of corruption is however not limited to departed leaders as the cancer is passed on to those who succeed them.

As an example, the World Bank revealed last year that up to $40 billion  is stolen annually by Nigeria’s current leaders.

Demands for accountability by increasingly alert African populations means that affected countries do not have to wait until thieving leaders die to institute investigations into their unexplainable  wealth and lavish lifestyles.

This is a welcome development which Senegal, for example, is taking advantage of.

The new government headed by Macky Sall has enlisted the help of the World Bank to recover assets transferred abroad under the 12-year regime of Abdoulaye Wade, who fought tooth and nail to cling to power but lost to Sall in elections held earlier this year.

A media report on the Senegalese probe, which is headed by a  Swiss judge highlights how “many former ministers live in lush villas and have assets that cannot be explained by their monthly salaries.”

Zimbabwe may not be thinking of a probe but the question of  how government ministers and other officials have mysteriously become fabulously wealthy on purported meagre salaries of $200 also needs to be answered.

Some of the ruling elite’s wealth has been exposed during divorce proceedings and as a result of brave investigative journalism by the independent media.

In addition to the World Bank’s Star initiative there are positive developments elsewhere to help the people of Africa to recover what has been stolen from them.  

For instance, three incumbent African leaders and their  families are under investigation in France.

Ali Bongo, who succeeded his father as president of Gabon in 2009, the family of Daniel Sassou Nguesso of  the Republic of Congo (Brazzavile) and the clan of Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea are accused of having assets in France worth  $195 million.

French judges are to determine whether this wealth from the oil-rich countries was amassed through corruption ,money laundering or looting of national coffers.

The case against these three leaders illustrates how revenues that should  be used for development and to improve the people’s standard of living are converted for personal aggrandisement.

Take the case of Equatorial Guinea.

The word most frequently used to describe its capital Malabo, is “ramshackle”.

It is said to have a poorly developed street network and only a few paved roads leading to it.

Presidential palace grounds are said to take up a substantial part of Malabo and are off  limits.

“Despite rapid growth in real GDP (gross domestic product) there is strong evidence of misappropriation of oil revenues for lavish personal expenditure”, according to Wikipedia.

The Obiang clan’s assets are also being investigated in Spain, which all goes to prove that when African leaders proclaim  “power to the people”, they really mean opulence for themselves and to hell with the masses.

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