A NUMBER of years ago I accompanied a client to Abuja, Nigeria, for final discussions and the signing of a contract for a project that had been negotiated over several months. 01a3b318885a476faec4227f500293fd

We landed in Lagos and spent a rather eventful evening and night there before taking a domestic flight to Abuja the next morning. The whole experience, from going through customs in Lagos to queueing on the tarmac to get onto the Abuja bound flight the next morning, was quite an experience for me.

But that is a story for another day.

While the project negotiations had gone on for several months, the call to come over to sign the contract reached us less than a week before we were required to travel. We knew that there would be no time to ask for an extension, as we had been told that the President’s Office wanted the deal signed as soon as possible.

The project price had been agreed upon – and so had the 12% commission that would have to be paid into a separate account as a sign of appreciation, or something like that.

But I only got to know of the commission when The Chief – that is how my client’s lead negotiator referred to the man who had been assigned to negotiate on, ostensibly, the President’s behalf – discussed it briefly at the start of the meeting.

So, the five of us joined The Chief in a rather simple boardroom adjacent to the reception area in which we had been waiting, as soon as we were summoned to do so. He stood up to greet us one by one and motioned us to sit down.

As soon as we did so, and without any pleasantries or enquiring about our trip, The Chief proceeded to explain that the 12% commission would in fact be 14%, and that the additional 2% would have to be paid into a separate bank account, the details of which he would provide to us after the meeting. There were uncomfortable stares all around the table as soon as he made that announcement, but none of us objected out loud.

Seeing the obvious look of frustration on the face of our lead negotiator, The Chief simply extended his arms to hold hands with the men on each side of him, encouraging all of us to do the same, like when believers bless food before a meal.

His said this to us: “Gentlemen, let us pray that all goes well.” I was probably the one who was the most stunned by the ritual, as I had never experienced anything like it prior to that meeting. But the air of frustration continued all around the table even while The Chief was saying his prayer – the only person with closed eyes – as the rest of us exchanged stares of powerlessness.

I got to understand after we had left The Chief’s offices that all power was in his hands; he was the President’s trusted and hand-picked negotiator for the project and his word was final.

Had we objected, the whole process would have been delayed for several more weeks, and we would have had to return emptyhanded to Johannesburg and Paris at best or, at worst, the project would have been given to the other contenders, a German company that had always been my client’s fierce competitor in that market.

I was also told that in Nigeria a signed contract doesn’t have the same value as it does in a place like South Africa. It could just be torn apart or thrown into the bin, even after being signed, if the client was unhappy about anything.

Were that to happen, there would be very little recourse for a foreign service provider in local courts, especially where the Office of the President is said to be involved.


Eating humble pie

At dinner discussions later that evening, I caught myself boasting that much of what we had experienced and I was subsequently told, would never happen in South Africa because we have very strong institutions; stronger than strongmen.

I was naïve of course, and probably also arrogant. The misplaced spirit of South African exceptionalism was still flowing insouciantly through my veins.

Back in South Africa, much has happened after that trip to Nigeria to bring me back to earth. Everything I thought would never be possible here has happened and, sadly, continues to happen even as we talk about it.

Africans across the continent are either laughing at us or crying with us, for many of them too had hoped that South Africa would defy the long-standing caricature of a corrupt, impoverished and conflict-infested continent whose political elites can do nothing right.


Obama’s words of wisdom

The November 2009 address by former US president Barack Obama to the Ghanaian Parliament still rings true: “… governments that respect the will of their own people are more prosperous, more stable, and more successful than governments that do not… This is about more than holding elections – it’s also about what happens between them.

“Repression takes many forms, and too many nations are plagued by problems that condemn their people to poverty. No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers. No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20% off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt.

“No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end… Africa doesn’t need strongmen, it needs strong institutions.


Strong institutions can be repurposed

Here in South Africa, we have institutions we naïvely believed to be strong enough to prevent us from falling into the abyss, simply because they exist.

But we now know – or should do so – that a democratic institution is like a luxury car with all the modern technology in it: put an inexperienced, arrogant and selfish driver behind its wheels and he will crash it.

Until we learn to elect wisely and remain vigilant in between elections, our country will continue to be stolen from us right under our noses while we watch helplessly. And the climb back will be very steep indeed.

The ongoing state capture madness begs the question: could it perhaps be that we’re expecting of African leaders conduct that is intrinsically un-African? Why is it that even when exposed, they can keep doing wrong, seemingly fearless of any possible consequence?