/ 6 May 2023

African Union leader charged with sexual assault

Fortune Charumbira (1)
Pan-African Parliament president Fortune Charumbira has denied that he sexually assaulted his niece and does not intend to step down from his position.

The president of the Pan-African Parliament, Fortune Charumbira, has been charged with sexual assault by police in Zimbabwe’s Masvingo province.

According to the docket, Charumbira is accused of sexually assaulting his 27-year-old niece on two occasions this year.

The Pan-African Parliament is the legislative body of the African Union. 

On 31 March, he is alleged to have invited her to a suite at a luxury hotel in Harare, where he put his hands under her dress, touched her breasts and kissed her without her consent. On 2 April, after requesting a meeting to discuss the previous incident, Charumbira is alleged to have put his hand between her legs and touched her genitals, while demanding that she kiss him.

In a 16-minute recording on the complainant’s phone, Charumbira is heard to say: “I see more value and benefit in you and we being linked somehow, being friends, being very close friends, private, very close friends … just a kiss with me.”

Later in the recording, he says: “Kiss me to motivate me.”

Charumbira has denied the allegations. “There is no element of truth in those allegations,” he told Zimbabwe’s NewsDay. The paper reported that it had seen a WhatsApp conversation between Charumbira and the complainant’s father, in which he said he regretted the incident and asked him not to share the audio file.

Charumbira did not respond to questions and neither did the Pan-African Parliament. He has indicated elsewhere that he does not intend to step down from his position while the case is being investigated.

Charumbira is a prominent player in Zimbabwean and continental politics. As the leader of the Nemanwa Chieftainship in Masvingo province, he has led Zimbabwe’s Council of Chiefs since 2013. 

He is a prominent supporter of the ruling Zanu-PF. 

Last year, he succeeded Cameroon’s Roger Nkodo Dang as president of the Pan-African Parliament.

Dang’s seven-year tenure at the AU was also tainted by scandal. In May 2019, parliamentary staff went on strike, accusing him of nepotism, favouritism, bullying and sexual harassment.

A parliamentary investigation — the results of which were leaked to the Mail & Guardian — found that he was guilty of improper behaviour including unwelcome touching, making unwanted advances, suggestive conversations and scheduling meetings at inappropriate times and venues. 

Dang disputed these findings as “allegations without proof”.

The inquiry recommended that the African Union launch a full investigation. Instead, the Pan-African Parliament voted in secret to bury the findings, and to take no action against Dang, who kept his job. He left the position in 2022 with full benefits and honours.

Gender equality is a central pillar of the African Union’s Agenda 2063, a roadmap for the continent’s growth and development. Yet the continental body’s response to sexual harassment and gender discrimination within its own ranks has been to cover it up — both at the Pan-African Parliament and in the African Union Commission.

In 2018, 37 female staff members wrote an open letter to the African Union Commission’s chair, Mousa Faki Mahamat, complaining of a “gender apartheid” in the institution, including pervasive sexual harassment and gender discrimination.

No action was taken until the publication of an M&G investigation into the matter. This report prompted an internal inquiry, led by Bineta Diop, who was then the AU special envoy for women, peace and security.

After interviewing 88 staff members, the inquiry reached a damning conclusion: it found at least 44 cases of alleged unfair labour practices, sexual harassment, sexual assault, fraud and nepotism. It said that employees confirmed “almost unanimously” that sexual harassment and assault occurred, including “young women [who] are exploited for sex in exchange for jobs”.

Only a small excerpt of the report was made public. The alleged perpetrators were never publicly named.

An abridged version, leaked again to the M&G, implicated the powerful Peace and Security Commissioner Smaïl Chergui, although his alleged offence was not specified. No action was taken against Chergui.

The Algerian completed his term and left office in 2021 with full benefits and honours. Other alleged perpetrators have retained their positions.

Commission chair Faki declined to respond to questions.

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.