Prosecuting errant rulers makes them become civilised citizens

Friday May 13 2022
Guinea's Alpha Conde.

Guinea's ousted leader Alpha Conde. PHOTO | AFP


Alpha Conde, the man who was overthrown by his military last September, is once again in the news, all for the wrong reasons. This time round the news is that Conde, together with scores of associates, is going to be tried for a string of crimes, including murder, torture and rape.

Sound familiar? Very, I am tempted to say. These are the accusations we habitually hear about our rulers on the African continent every time they are overthrown, which accusations could not have been brought against them when they were still in power.

In Africa, once a person, however mundane and ordinary, gets to the pinnacle of political power, he/she morphs into a deity, and no one in their country is allowed to question whatever he/she does or says, and that is the law.

All that changes when, like in Conde’s case, they are overthrown, usually by their own military who, having been used by these tyrants for long periods to suppress dissent among their people, now get the urge to remove their bosses and take power for themselves.

Military violence

People like Conde I call “fake civilians” knowingly, because though they masquerade as civilians, in their Pierre Cardin suits, in reality their rule is founded on military violence that their soldiers can and do unleash on their people to keep them quiet.


Try to scan the political map of Africa, and you will see where I’m coming from. How many governments would be characterised as truly civilian, maintained in power through consensual processes of persuasion. Hardly two or three, the remainder being governments that rest on the brute force of the police and the military.

So, the long-suffering subjects — subjects, not citizens — of our countries have often to persevere under unbearable dictatorships until some plucky military boys storm out of their barracks and shoot their way into state house, arrest the president and his acolytes and declare themselves the new rulers, to immediately become the new dictators

All too often we have heard the African Union condemn these military takeovers, but these condemnations sound hollow because the same AU keeps quiet when these so-called civilian regimes are lording it over their people, imprisoning, killing, raping or exiling all who dare oppose them.

So what moral authority does the AU have to call out the military when they decide to take over power in such countries?

A situation ought to be created wherein our “civilian” governments are really civilian and civilised, where they rule by consent and the power of suasion, where politics is done by politicians and not by police, where elections are elections, not selections.

The people must have the power to make their rulers accountable.

Today we hear that Conde is bound for trial, basically only because he was overthrown by the military. This should not be the case. Rather, when the crimes of which a president is accused were committed, it should have been possible to prosecute him there and then, thus obviating the necessity of a military takeover just so you can have a president prosecuted.

Our constitution

It may sound absurd, but, seriously, if you want to take an African president to court for any crime he may have committed, you must first overthrow his government. Ridiculous, but true.

I have often heard statements by people who have read our constitution upside-down, who claim some kind of impunity for those who have served as heads of state. But no one should be held to be above the law.

There ought to be some constitutional restrictions on actions that can be taken against a serving president, including guarantees against frivolous and disruptive suits against a sitting president, but that should in no case mean that once a person accedes to the office of president they become immune to the imperative of behaving properly. Otherwise the presidency becomes a ticket to thuggery.

For instance, it may be made difficult to prosecute a head of state who made decisions that caused hardship, even the loss of life, to their citizens in a situation where they were entitled to make those decisions because they constituted actions which they authorised to make in the execution of their duties.

But such actions cannot include the commission of crimes, such as theft, murder, torture and such acts that are forbidden by law.

Supposing a president commits rape in the presidential place — such a case has at least once been spoken about — does the fact that at the time of committing that crime he was a sitting president exonerate him from legal responsibility? Absolutely no! His presidential duties did not include rape.

This is just an example — extreme, maybe, but not unthinkable — to show how ridiculous the argument for immunity can go.

Our rulers

One can think up so many examples of the wrongs that people like Conde are accused of, and which should remain eminently punishable.

Such lawsuits as the one the Guinean courts are going to hear against Conde should serve to concentrate the minds of our rulers so that they become exemplary citizens, not owners, of their countries.

Jenerali Ulimwengu is now on YouTube via jeneralionline tv. email: [email protected]