African Judges Presiding over African Presidents

WHEN SA high court judge Themba Sishi entered the historic court room in the east coast city of Durban to preside in the corruption case of former president Jacob Zuma, he became one of a select few judges required to try an African president.

Zuma is now to have his day in court, after years of legal action to prevent that day from ever arriving. The charges relate to a multi-billion US dollar arms deal struck by SA and from which he is alleged to have profited corruptly via bribes paid to him by Schabir Shaik, a businessman already convicted and sentenced for bribery.

It is not the first time he has been tried: when he was still SA’s deputy president, he appeared before Judge Willem van der Merwe, charged with rape. He was acquitted, after pleading that the incident – involving the daughter of a colleague – was consensual.

As Reuters reports, however, trials of this sort – involving a top political leader – are unusual in Africa where presidents and other senior leaders are often given impunity, and never see the inside of a court room.

Rueters has drawn up a list of other African countries in which the judiciary has had to consider charges against top leadership:

Chad, where former dictator Hissene Habre was convicted in 2016 by a special international tribunal sitting in Senegal. His sentence: life in prison for war crimes and crimes against humanity during his 1982 – 1990 rule.  A special tribunal upheld the life sentence last year.

Zambia, where Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s first democratically elected president was charged with stealing nearly $500 000 of public funds, after he stood down in 2002. He was acquitted of all charges in 2009 and died two years later.

Ivory Coast, where former president Laurent Gbagbo was taken to the International Criminal Court for crimes allegedly committed during post-electoral violence in 2010/11, when he refused to accept defeat by his political rival, Alassane Ouattara. The trial in The Hague began before judges of the ICC in 2016 and is ongoing.

Liberia, whose former president, Charles Taylor, is now serving a 50-year jail term in a British prison for war crimes in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Taylor, a warlord who campaigned for election in 1997 on the slogan, “He killed my ma, he killed my pa, but I will vote for him”, was convicted in 2012 by judges of the UN Special Court for Sierra Leone.

Kenya, where Uhuru Kenyatta was summoned to the ICC to answer questions about his indictment on charges of orchestrating a wave of deadly post-election violence that swept the country in 2007/8. The ICC agreed to withdraw the charges against him in 2015.