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01.01.2008 Feature Article

Political Immunities And Accountability in Africa: Where Do We Draw The Line?

When George Orwell wrote in the Animal Farm some 50 years ago about some animals being more equal than others, his target was the hypocrisy of some Communist leaders. Today communism is all but dead and democracy is the buzz word. However, in a number of African countries citizens could just as well use Orwell's words to describe some of their own political leaders who have made off with impressive sums of money from the state or have committed other acts that would quickly land an ordinary citizen in jail. Those leaders are rarely punished or held accountable because their countries laws allow them to claim immunity as public officials even in cases of flagrant abuse of office, crimes against humanity or official corruption.

Political immunity developed in most of Europe during the middle ages to protect members of the early parliament and other political leaders from the powers of the King. In other parts of the world where immunity laws apply such as in Europe, protection against abuse of public office have increasingly found its way into the law and public officials have been held accountable. But in much of Africa, overly broad immunity laws, weak court systems, overly political and ineffective law enforcement agencies, and often a resigned populace have allowed the egregious and illegal behaviour of public officials to continue with impunity and go unpunished. This is deeply offensive to the tenets of democratic governance and accountability.

We are not talking here about diplomatic immunity or the kind of immunity a government sometimes offers to protect an individual in return for his testimony against others. Instead, in some countries, government officials are protected by broad immunity from prosecution for any criminal act or acts committed while holding public office. The immunity is not limited to cases in which an alleged crime relates to the legitimate exercise of public duties. All civilized nations have immunities that relate to and protect public officials in the legitimate exercise of their functions. But in many African countries, indeed public officials cannot be prosecuted or in some instances even investigated for cases ranging from theft, abuse of office, to crimes like drunk driving and others. It is hard to understand how embezzlement for instance could be related to a legitimate exercise of a public duty.

And let all current holders of political office be aware that they have no blanket immunities except that related to the legitimate exercise of their public duties. Any other crime committed while in office can be investigated and punished while in office or even long after they leave office. Unless, we tackle governance and accountability we are not tackling the real issues because lack of transparency and accountability have contributed in a great measure to the current bad state of affairs in Africa. African countries need to adopt an African Convention against Corruption with all countries making it a commitment to prevent, detect, punish, and eradicate corruption in the performance of public functions.

Corruption stands in the way of African development and we must do everything possible to combat this social menace. In a situation where resources for national development are few, any diversion of the limited resources made available for the benefit of all to private hands and pockets deprives millions of people from enjoying the benefits of development and condemns them to poverty. We need to develop real effective strategy to tackle not just pay lip service to the fight against corruption. The government's zero tolerance for corruption policy has been an embarrassing and dismal failure. The good news is that in some African countries, immunities are limited to legitimate exercise of official duties and anything outside of that is punishable. Former President Chiluba of Zambia is serving a term in prison for corruption, and other examples exist in other parts of the developing world, former Phillipino president Estrada was impeached for corruption and is sentenced to life in prison. In South America, the former Chilean dictator Pinochet was hunted down long after he left office for human right abuses, and the former Peruvian President Fujimori is standing trial on corruption and human rights abuses.

Ben Ofosu-Appiah.
Tokyo-Japan.
The author is a senior social and political analyst and also policy strategist based in Tokyo, Japan. Your comments are welcomed.

Ben Ofosu-Appiah
Ben Ofosu-Appiah, © 2008

This author has authored 133 publications on Modern Ghana. Author column: BenOfosuAppiah

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