Two weeks ago, MPs from all over the African continent — at least the ones that could be bothered to show up — arrived at the makeshift headquarters of the Pan African Parliament at a conference centre in Midrand, a nondescript commuter town that straddles the highway between Johannesburg and Pretoria.
They were expecting to get on with a fortnight of largely symbolic law-making (although in theory the Pan African Parliament is Africa’s highest legislative body, in practice its powers are almost nonexistent). Instead, the honourable members have spent the last two weeks embroiled in a sexual harassment scandal that threatens to topple its under-fire president Roger Nkodo Dang, and casts long shadows over the integrity of the institution itself.
It began with a strike — an almost unprecedented action from African Union staff (the Parliament is an institution of the AU). Fed up with what they described as the “nepotism” and “personality cult” of Nkodo, members of the Pan African Parliament Staff Association — including clerks and translators — refused to go to work.
In a statement circulated to parliamentarians, and seen by the Mail & Guardian, the disgruntled staff issued a list of seven grievances against Nkodo. These included allegations that he sexually harasses female staff members; he verbally threatens and bullies staff members; he routinely disregards AU rules and regulations; his method of administration is characterised by “favouritism” and “clientilism”; he is responsible for the breakdown in relations between the Parliament and the AU; and that he illegally swore in two MPs from Côte d’Ivoire.
This is not Nkodo’s first brush with scandal. Last year Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, said Nkodo was a “corrupt president” because he refused to release an audit report on the state of the Parliament’s finances. Nkodo has also been criticised for refusing to accept a ministerial-level residence offered to him by the South African government, instead choosing to reside in the Michelangelo Hotel in Sandton — at great expense.
In Midrand, an obviously rattled Nkodo told parliamentarians: “The staff are on strike and we cannot therefore meet.”
He wanted to form an ad-hoc committee to meet staff to address the grievances, but insisted that he be allowed to lead the committee. In its wisdom, Parliament agreed that
his involvement might be counterproductive. Instead, it asked a Kenyan senator and retired judge, Stewart Madzayo, to head the process, and excluded Nkodo altogether.
All other parliamentary business ground to a halt while the 12-member committee interviewed witnesses. Their tone was not always gentle. One woman, who claimed that she was sexually harassed by Nkodo, was asked by a committee member: “Did you do anything to turn him on?” This is according to the confidential minutes of the proceedings, seen by the M&G. Another committee member who objected to the tone of this question was overruled.
On May 16, the ad-hoc committee was ready to deliver its report. This has not been made public, but the M&G has an audio recording of Madzayo reading it out to Parliament. Although it dismisses most of the grievances against Nkodo, saying there is a lack of evidence to substantiate them, it does implicate him in two major offences: sexual harassment and the illegal swearing in of the two Ivorian parliamentarians.
The nature of the sexual harassment allegations include unwelcome touching, making unwanted advances, suggestive conversations and scheduling meetings at inappropriate times and venues. Although the president denies all the allegations against him, the committee found — and Madzayo’s voice quavered as he read this out — that some of the president’s actions were improper. It adds: “In the circumstances, in view of the highest degree of honour and dignity required of his office, the committee noted there is good reason to believe that a forensic investigation should be conducted from across the board, led by the African Union.”
But that investigation is not going to happen. At an ill-tempered debate the next day, parliamentarians voted unanimously to amend the report to remove the recommendation for a forensic investigation. Although the session was closed, the M&G has obtained a video recording of the proceedings, in which parliamentarian after parliamentarian stands up to argue against a formal investigation and against making the report public.
For example, Geoffrey Lungwan-gwa, an MP from Zambia, dismisses the report as “innuendoes, preconceptions, subjectivities, rumours, character assassinations, and so forth”, and argues that “the outcome of the findings are really for internal consumption”. Monty Marie Claire Jeanne, an MP from Mauritius, begins her submission by saying that she is proud of Nkodo, and that “it is a matter for the Pan African parliamentarians to handle, because this is between us and it must not be made public”.
One major issue for parliamentarians was the suggestion that the investigation be conducted by the AU, because this was seen to impinge on the Parliament’s authority. Relations between the Pan African Parliament and the AU have been strained in recent years.
A spokesperson for the AU commission said that it had no information regarding this matter.
There was precious little support in Parliament for proceeding with an investigation into Nkodo’s alleged sexual harassment. One exception came from Ugandan MP James Kakooza, who said: “It would be unfair for us to become police, prosecutor and pass a judgment. So those recommendations must be recommended to an independent person who can give us a clear position. We don’t have capacity to pass a judgment on someone. You cannot investigate yourself and judge yourself.”
Kakooza’s submission was repeatedly interrupted by boos from the chamber.
The M&G asked Nkodo for his comment on the situation. Although he declined to answer specific questions, he said: “My dear journalist, I can’t comment on the allegations without proof, so for me it’s allegations.” Later, he added: “We need to work. Some of our staff don’t have capacity for hard work and start to bring allegations. We are here to work.”
The scandal has already affected the careers of some of the people perceived to have opposed Nkodo. His immediate deputy, first vice-president Stephen Masele from Tanzania, was recalled by the speaker of Tanzania’s National Assembly with immediate effect last week, allegedly for “insubordination” in the Pan African Parliament.
Masele could not be reached for comment, but said on Twitter: “Mr President, I think we do not have a common value system. [Pan African Parliament] has a moral responsibility to ensure we protect the rights of women against sexual harassment in working place [sic].”
Last Friday, acting chief clerk Jobe Yusupha was suspended — the fourth chief clerk in four years to be suspended by Nkodo — and denied access to his office and files. Senior parliamentary staffers told the M&G that Yusupha’s suspension was directly related to his support for the women alleging sexual harassment by Nkodo. “They are trying to bury this thing,” said one.
The Pan African Parliament is not the only AU institution embroiled in a sexual harassment cover-up scandal. Last week, the M&G reported how senior officials in the AU Commission had been accused of sexual harassment and exploitation but had been permitted to keep their jobs and benefits, while the women who laid the complaints had been sidelined at work.