Written by the editorial Board of The Guardian

The decision of South Africa’s highest court the other day in which it ordered President Jacob Zuma to repay within 105 days $15 million of state funds he used in renovating his private residence in Nkandla must be celebrated as a landmark for accountability in Africa. Zuma, who succeeded Thabo Mvuyelwa Mbeki as president in May 2009 and was re-elected in 2014, had expended public funds to upgrade his sprawling rural residence in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa but refused to admit it even in the face of massive public outrage. The case dragged on for years but, thanks to relentless media investigations and doggedness of the citizens, judgment finally came against impunity and abuse of office.

Though President Zuma has apologized in a televised address to the nation saying that he was willing to pay back money spent on non-security related upgrades at the house, some opinions had favoured his resignation from office, and he barely survived an impeachment by the nation’s parliament.

South Africa’s apex court had ruled that Zuma breached the constitution when he used $15 million worth of state funds to renovate his private home. The 11 justices of the country’s constitutional court unanimously ruled that the president should reimburse some of the money spent on the renovations.

In his apology, Zuma had regretted any inconvenience that the prolonged matter might have caused his people even as he noted that, “the matter has caused a lot of frustration and confusion.” Sounding truly contrite, he added in his plea to the South African people: “The judgment has underscored the values that underpin our hard-won freedom and democracy, such as the rule of law and the accountability of public office bearers, while also respecting the rights of public office bearers facing scrutiny”. He also added that, “the judgment has further strengthened our constitutional democracy and should make South Africans proud of their country’s Constitution and its strong and effective institutions…”

While these are salutary words, Zuma’s conduct, which led to such a penance was anything but. He filibustered for so long and did everything to prevent justice from prevailing in a classic case of abuse of office. He set a bad example and, coming from Nelson Mandela’s political family, Zuma did more than a little damage to the standing of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). It is, indeed, an insufferable paradox that South Africa, supposedly one of Africa’s leading nations in politics, business and governance would be brought into such global odium just a few years after the demise of the iconic leader, Nelson Mandela.

South Africa is not just any country. It is the only African member of the G-2, globally recognized as part of the 20 biggest economies in the world. The country so immeasurably edified by the great Mandela did not deserve such a conduct as Zuma’s.

Good governance and ethical leadership can only take root in Africa when leaders in places like South Africa and Nigeria are exemplars. Which is also why the Inkandla scandal has received wide interest among Nigerians. Many public-spirited professionals, notably lawyers and other civil society organizations, including the media, have since called on the Nigerian leadership to change its ways. In Nigeria, where public funds are known to be used for personal purposes with impunity, the Zuma spectacle in South Africa should instruct appropriately.

In Nigeria, impunity and wanton display of looted funds reign. And only few questions are asked, with nothing done when no answers are forth-coming. The people look on helplessly and hopelessly as the nation’s common wealth is appropriated into the private pockets of those in power. Which is why the people, the civil society groups and the opposition political parties in South Africa which doggedly pursued the Zuma case to its conclusion not only deserve commendation, they hold out a great lesson to their Nigerian counterparts.

So many theories have been propounded and many protocols signed to engender good governance in Africa. Whatever happened to the much-touted Peer Review Mechanism (PRM) of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)!

Henceforth, Africans and their leaders should stop the vacuous lamentations about “how the West underdeveloped us” and hold themselves to account! The dealers who masquerade as leaders in Africa should note that public office is a public trust and at the end of the day, a good name garnered from service to the people from such an office is to be preferred to ill-gotten riches.

The values of honesty and integrity must return in leadership positions if Africa would make progress. The people must discharge their duties to their nations and hold the leadership to account if they would claim responsible citizenship. An apparent collapse of values everywhere in Africa and a desecration of the peoples’ cultures, in which honesty and service to community are common threads, are destroying the continent.

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