President Emmerson Mnangagwa is in the process of passing dubious constitutional amendments under the cover of COVID-19, reversing years of efforts that have given rise to the current Constitution of Zimbabwe.
According to Ringisai Chikohomero, ISS researcher, the 2013 Constitution was changed once in 2014 and is now ready to undergo 27 more changes at once. All of this takes place under restrictive blocking conditions justify by the pandemic riskwhich significantly limit citizens’ full participation in the consultative process necessary for such changes to take place.
Some of the amendments proposed by the government of Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) seem harmless enough: the introduction of the Public Protector’s Office and the extension of the quota system to include the representation of young people in Parliament. But others seem to be a clear attempt to preserve and strengthen the executive’s power.
One of these amendments concerns the judges’ pension. “The judges of the High Court of Zimbabwe – says the ISS researcher – have the lowest retirement age in the region of southern Africa, at 70 years of age. The proposed bill aims to introduce another five years. This five-year extension, however, depends on a one-year renewal subject to a medical certification of the judge’s physical and mental fitness.”
“These renewals – explains Ringisai Chikohomero – will not be based on the opinion of the Commission of the judicial service, but will be based on the President’s decision. This not only removes the very important security of the possession component that judges should enjoy, but also affects their independence, as renewal becomes a President whim. The risk is that the judges feel pressured to ingratiate themselves with the executive.”
In addition to threatening judicial independence, says the ISS researcher, the bill proposes to limit parliamentary control over loans and economic ‘agreements‘ between government and international agencies by removing Parliament’s veto power over all bilateral agreements. .
The implication of this is serious. Without parliamentary scrutiny, Zimbabwe could be left in substantial debt and its future could be mortgaged through negative deals. The country’s current economic problems are, in fact, partly due to the debt inherited from the previous colonial regime. This has been compounded by reckless loans and corrupt agreements between the post-independence government and other states and economic actors.
“The citizens of Zimbabwe – Ringisai Chikohomero points out – are currently left without appeal as their organization and participation rights are severely reduced. Parliament has seriously launched public consultations on the draft law on the amendment of the Constitution (No. 2) from 15 June 2020. This is taking place in the midst of rigorous COVID-19 measures which limit citizens’ rights to organize and collectively resist or support the constitutional amendments”.
Citizens were not given enough time, ways and resources to participate in the consultative process since COVID-19 restrictions are in place. The Constitutions should not be changed at will by political parties simply because they won a clear majority in the elections – two thirds in the case of Zimbabwe, which ZANU-PF currently enjoys.
The process of amending the Constitution was already underway before the entry into force of the COVID-19 restrictions on 30 March. However, says RingisaiChikohomero, the push to complete the process with severe blockade measures is as if the ruling party is capitalizing on the pandemic to make its way without massive mobilization and citizens’ protest.
The current COVID-19 restrictions limit the number of people who can gather to less than 50 and the movement of people is limited solely to spending and medical reasons. In a country where trust in leaders and public representatives is lacking, strong institutions such as the judiciary help to fill the gap of responsibility.
It is imperative that citizen participation is seen as an active and conscious engagement with important national issues from an informed position. Current COVID-19 restrictions make such citizen involvement impossible.
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