By Professor Adekeye Adebajo
During a visit to Lagos this month, I witnessed strong reactions by Nigerians to the erection of a 25-metre, R19 million bronze statue to South African president Jacob Zuma. The flamboyant, eccentric governor of Nigeria's south-eastern Imo state, Owelle "Rochas" Okorocha, had conferred this honour on Zuma in the state capital of Owerri, as well as naming a street after him, giving him the state Merit Award, and honouring the South African leader with a traditional chieftaincy title of Ochiagha ("Great Warrior"), with Zuma resplendent in colourful royal regalia, a red cap, beads, and a staff of office. Unfortunately, the ceremony occurred at the same time as South Africa's Supreme Court of Appeal decided to reinstate 783 charges of corruption against president Zuma, leading to a loud crescendo of protest from Nigerians at what many saw as the honouring of an ethically challenged figure rather than a Nelson Mandela or Oliver Tambo – writes Professor Adekeye Adebajo, Director: Institute for Pan-African Thought and Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).
Nigerian pundit, Reuben Abati, complained that Zuma's presidency "has been scandal-ridden, from allegations of abuse of office to a personal life characterised by much burlesque." Nigeria's Civil Society Network Against Corruption asked: "Is Governor Okorocha not aware that Mr Zuma has been found guilty of corruption by the courts in South Africa and ordered to refund the $500,000 stolen from the public treasury to expand his private home to accommodate his many wives?" Human rights activist, Chidi Odinkalu complained: "It desecrates our people and our state and it will be pulled down." Pundit, Jiti Ogunye, opined: "heroes, and not a villain, can be celebrated in Nigeria"; community activist, Truelove Njoku, observed: "A Zuma statue costing millions of naira is insanity;" while pundit, Austin Osakue, described the monument as a "gross betrayal of Nigerians… the height of executive callousness and administrative naivety…this brutal assault on our sensibilities."
Rochas, a narcissistic, self-styled "Professor of Philantrophy" suffering from delusions of grandeur, has, in fact, become notorious among Nigerians for grandiloquent gestures: having taken a photo with then US president Barack Obama in 2015, he emblazoned it on a giant billboard in his state capital with the words: "Behold the New Faces of Change." The governor also celebrated his 55th birthday for two weeks, with 27 women – each representing a local government area in the state – presenting the profligate governor with a cake.
The announced reason for honouring Zuma was the signing of a partnership agreement between the Rochas Foundation (which funds the education of under-privileged children from 15 African countries at five colleges in Nigeria) and the Jacob Zuma Educational Foundation. Since these are, however, private foundations, the use of public funds to build such a grandiose statue was bound to elicit angry reactions in a state in which salaries and pensions had not been paid for months.
The incident also triggered the historical rivalry between Nigeria and South Africa, bringing to the surface the recent tensions in bilateral relations. Many Nigerians complained that Zuma had overseen an administration in which 116 Nigerians had been murdered in the last two years (a figure disputed by Tshwane), including in bouts of xenophobic violence earlier this year during which arsonist mobs destroyed Nigerian homes and businesses in Gauteng. Critics further noted that many of the victims of these attacks were from the south-east, with several from Rochas' own Imo state. South African communications giant, MTN, had its office in Abuja vandalised in retaliation for these attacks, and there is widespread anger in Nigeria at what is often perceived as mercantilist South African firms profiting disproportionately from Nigeria's 180 million-strong market, while many believe that Nigerian companies are denied reciprocal access to the South African market. Flying between Johannesburg and Lagos on South African Airways (SAA), the tension is palpable between angry Nigerian customers and an often disrespectful and indifferent SAA cabin crew.
Rochas has been unapologetically defiant to criticisms of his unveiling of Zuma's statue, arguing that he is trying to attract foreign investment to his state. His aides and allies have noted that no other Igbo leader has attracted such a high-level personality to the south-east, dismissing critics as jealous, selfish "enemies of the people" and "fifth columnists".
Angry residents of Owerri have, however, threatened to pull down Zuma's statue which is being guarded by armed police. It is likely that – like Cecil Rhodes – "Zuma" will fall. He may, however, fall in Nigeria before he falls in South Africa.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the University of Johannesburg. This article was first published in Business Day (South Africa), on 30 October 2017.