HARARE – Zanu PF’s plans to amend the Constitution were overwhelmingly rejected yesterday as civil society and members of the public in Harare ganged up against the proposed Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment (No1) Bill.
The Bill seeks to restore sweeping powers to President Robert Mugabe to appoint the country’s chief justice and other senior members of the bench, thereby reversing the clauses in the county’s Constitution which give the Judicial Services Commission (JSC) the right to choose these officials through public interviews.
Current Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku leaves the bench at the end of this month, after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70.
Yesterday’s well-attended Harare public hearing was chaired by Justice and Legal Affairs parliamentary portfolio committee chairperson Ziyambi Ziyambi.
“The reason why there is an interview process by the Judicial Service Commission is in respect to four key areas, to ensure judicial independence, judicial accountability, merit-based appointment and diversity and equality,” argued rights lawyer David Hofisi.
“The amendment is also against the spirit of the separation of powers. I would plead with the committee to consider the United Nations’ basic principles of the independence of the judiciary, a specific provision which states that any method of judicial selection should safeguard against improper political motives,” he said.
A member of the public, John Chirenda, queried the haste with which the government wanted to amend the country’s supreme law.
“There is no justification for amending the Constitution. This will clearly subvert the will of the people,” he said.
Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights) director Okay Machisa said while the alignment of subsidiary laws to the Constitution was taking too long, the government was already trying to amend the new charter.
“We believe that the rights of the people might be curtailed through allowing the head of State or the executive to interfere with the judiciary.
“In my view, I am not in support of the amendment at all. I would rather want to see Parliament pushing for the alignment of the laws that are still outstanding to suit the Constitution,” he said.
On Monday, the Supreme Court slapped down a High Court order which sought to bar the JSC from conducting public interviews to choose the country’s next chief justice, ruling that the executive’s plans to amend the law did not in itself nullify the Constitution.
This was after University of Zimbabwe law student Romeo Zibani had last year launched an application seeking to stop the public interviews, resulting in High Court judge Charles Hungwe delivering his order on December 11, stopping the interviews.
The JSC immediately noted its appeal at the Supreme Court, which suspended Hungwe’s judgment.
Three candidates — Constitutional Court judge Paddington Garwe, JSC secretary Rita Makarau and deputy chief justice Luke Malaba — were subsequently interviewed for the post, with a fourth candidate, High Court Judge President George Chiweshe, pulling out of the race at the last minute.
At about the same time, Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who is also in charge of the Justice ministry had — through an affidavit that was presented in court — stated that he had begun a process to amend Section 180 of the Constitution, to change the process of appointing high level judicial officials.
The battle to appoint Chidyausiku’s successor has since taken a decidedly factional tone, as the ruling Zanu PF’s brawling bigwigs fight to install a candidate acceptable to their respective camps.
The two major Zanu PF factions — Generation 40 which is rabidly opposed to Mnangagwa succeeding Mugabe and Team Lacoste (the VP’s allies) — see the new chief justice as a key cog in the wheel in the succession battle, should this reach the courts.