Game changers: Zondo, Touré, Merzoug… The incorruptible seekers of justice

In depth
This article is part of the dossier: Game Changers

By By Mawunyo Hermann Boko, Rania Hamdi, Bokar Sangaré
Posted on Tuesday, 21 December 2021 12:13, updated on Monday, 27 December 2021 00:44

They are on the frontline of the fight against corruption, fighting to guarantee the independence of justice in an often difficult context. Portraits of independence from the continent: South African Justice Raymond Zondo, Prosecutor Idrissa Hamidou Touré of Mali, and Algerian magistrate Saadeddin Merzoug.

This is part 3 of an 8-part series

Anti-corruption fighter: Z for Zondo

It is not always easy to identify public figures – outside the NGO sphere – who are making a difference in the fight against corruption in Africa. However, in South Africa, the problem is being tackled… even if not always at the pace the people want.

When Jacob Zuma appointed Raymond Zondo as deputy president of the constitutional court, the country’s highest court, in June 2017, he had no idea that Zondo would be the architect of his downfall less than a year later. In January 2018, the magistrate headed the commission of enquiry charged with shedding light on the serious accusations of corruption made against the former head of state by Thuli Madonsela – the unshakeable former ombudsman, who was appointed in 2009 by Zuma – in a report made public at the end of 2016.

The document, with its evocative title (‘State of capture’), depicts – on more than 350 pages – the systemic corruption orchestrated at the highest level of the state by a powerful mafia network headed by the influential Gupta family, of Indian origin, which is said to have benefitted from highly advantageous government contracts, valued at several hundred million euros.

According to former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, nearly R100bn ($6.7bn) is estimated to have evaporated from public coffers to private interests under the Zuma presidency, from 2009 to 2018. Just over a tenth of this sum was allegedly distributed in bribes or laundered with the complicity of senior ANC officials, starting with its secretary-general Ace Magashule, who was suspected of corruption in connection with an irregular asbestos removal audit contract in 2014.

The unprecedented nature of the revelations, added to the scale of the prevarications in a country where more than half the population lives below the poverty line, precipitated the fall of Zuma, who was forced to resign. However, this was only the beginning of a long judicial tug of war between Judge Zondo and the clan of the former South African president. During the hearings that were broadcast live on television and on social networks, Zuma was challenged by dozens of witnesses.

First, the judge spared the 79-year-old Zuma from summons, preferring ‘an invitation’ to testify. However, the former head of state refused to comply, either making numerous appeals or asserting his right to silence. In February 2021, a final no-show exasperated Raymond Zondo, who had remained unperturbed until then.

In June, Zuma was sentenced to 15 months in prison for ‘contempt of court’ after he failed to respond to yet another summons from the commission of enquiry, despite a constitutional court order denying him his right to silence. He became the first post-apartheid president to be sentenced to prison.

Idrissa Hamidou Touré, strong arm prosecutor

With a name almost synonymous with a detention order, he is in the spotlight. Idrissa Hamidou Touré, from the Bamako district Public Prosecutor’s Office of the IV commune, the second most important in the country, has added a number of celebrities from the Bamako microcosm to his list of targets.

They include Diaba Sora – nicknamed the Malian Kim Kardashian – who was imprisoned for ‘insults on social networks’ and Kaou Djim, fourth vice-president of the National Transitional Council (CNT), who was charged with ‘harming the credit of the state and disturbing public order’ following comments made on local media.

This latest case caused an uproar in some media outlets, which saw it as an attack on freedom of expression. Touré responded saying: “Freedom of expression does not cover insults, invective, denigration and other personal attacks based on petty, ill-fated grudges and political score-settling.”

On a continent where enforcing the law and individual freedoms is often a challenge, Touré is like a breath of fresh air in Mali. To be ‘an impediment to troublemakers’ is his mission in his prosecution role. Touré does not hesitate to go after targets, even those who use questionable rap lyrics. Wizy Wozo, 19, who has a large following on social networks, learned this the hard way. Touré took it upon himself to arrest Wozo for ‘rape advocacy’ over his track with the lyrics: “If the ‘go’ [girlfriend] disrespects you, gang rape her.”

“He is the best judge Mali has ever known,” says one Bamako citizen. Appointed in October 2020, this 37-year-old magistrate, trained in Bamako, Limoges (France) and then Saint-Louis (Senegal), is proud when he recounts his record of service in Bougouni, Yelimané, and even Bafoulabé, where he still keeps “the letters of congratulations from the village chiefs and local elected officials” like a trophy.

However, in the Malian judicial world, some of his colleagues believe that “power has gone to his head”. “He has transformed his prosecutor’s office into a communication agency and a prosecutor’s office with unlimited jurisdiction. He takes responsibility for any offence that could have media repercussions,” says a judge, speaking on condition of anonymity. “For ordinary people, he is a hero, but for the courts he is worthless. He just wants to please the authorities. He’s a place-hunter,” says another.

In response to these attacks, Touré says: “A magistrate who only acts on instruction owes his position to the culture of mediocrity and rewarded submission… Regimes come and go, magistrates remain. We belong to a permanent power and do not have to sell our soul to passers-by.” The prosecutor is expected to deal with a burning case, which has focused attention on the jurisdiction for which he is responsible: the disappearance of journalist Birama Touré.

In the context of this case, he has already detained a high-ranking army officer, General Moussa Diawara, former head of the Malian intelligence services. Karim Keïta, the son of former president IBK, is also cited.

Saadeddin Merzoug, lone voice

Alone against all. Saadeddin Merzoug is the first magistrate in the history of Algeria to break the wall of silence and fear by publicly calling for the independence of justice and showing his support for the popular Hirak movement. His criticism of the government led to his removal from the judiciary last June.

The disciplinary session of the Supreme Council of the Judiciary (CSM) accused him of violating the obligation of reserve by posting comments on political news on his Facebook page, taking a position in favour of boycotting the presidential elections of 18 April and 4 July 2019, inciting magistrates to strike and calling on members of the CSM to join the popular protest.

A few weeks earlier, Saadeddin Merzoug had firmly refused the deal offered to him by the ministry of justice: a public apology and the withdrawal of his critical publications on social networks, in exchange for the abandonment of the disciplinary procedure initiated against him. “The obligation of reserve does not consist in keeping silent, but only in not disclosing a professional secret,” said the magistrate, who shattered the leaden blanket that had covered the functioning of the judiciary since independence in 1962.

Five months after his ouster, the 30-year-old confides that he has no regrets about his protest course. His active supporters number in the thousands and continue to denounce an unprecedented attack on this magistrate, who is highly respected by those in his profession and has been the subject of five disciplinary cases since the beginning of the Hirak.

The activities of the Free Magistrates Club – an independent trade union organisation that was created three years before the Hirak of 22 February 2019 and of which he is the spokesperson – are also frozen. “I prefer to pay the price alone and not expose others to being struck off,” he says.

The now ex-magistrate wants to give himself time to think about his reconversion: to become a lawyer registered with the Supreme Court, to join a national or international consultancy firm, or to accept the proposal to chair the Algerian League of Human Rights.

The latter choice would put him back in a position of confrontation with the authorities.

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