Candid Comment

Mugabe & a homegrown constitution

By Joram Nyathi


BUT we said: “Why, won’t you send troops, British troops?” He said, word for word: “Ah, because the British public would not stand for it.”


We said: “Kith and kin issue?”


He said: “Well, you know what happened when the Suez War was fought, and this was by the Conservatives, the British public was against it…”


But we said: “No, we are not here negotiating with the British public, we are negotiating with the government, and it is government action we want.”


The “we” was President Robert Mugabe in a 2002 interview with editor of New African magazine Baffour Ankomah. The occasion in question was a meeting in October 1965 between members of the newly-formed Zanu and British prime minister Harold Wilson to discuss whether the British government would send troops to stop Ian Smith’s plans for UDI. Wilson said the threat of an oil embargo against Rhodesia would do the trick. It didn’t. More importantly, he said the British public was against the use of force.


When President Mugabe recently said the Lancaster House constitution was homegrown, that it was “sacrosanct” even, I was not just shocked but expected spirited objections from politicians and opposition parties currently lobbying for a “homegrown” basic law. I expected NCA leader Lovemore Madhuku to lead the protest, given his crusade for such a new constitution.


Not in Zimbabwe where selfishness and greedy self-enrichment have become pastimes.


What intrigued me most about the Ankomah interview was a trait that has become a hallmark of Mugabe’s — his brazen contempt for what Wilson calls “the public” and Mugabe calls “our people”. Back then in 1965 Mugabe couldn’t understand why the British government should bother itself about public opinion in sending troops to Rhodesia. Wilson as prime minister was supposed to make a unilateral decision regardless of the amorphous creature called “the public”.


That attitude has not changed a bit if one considers how Zimbabwe found itself fighting a costly foreign war in the DRC in 1998 without parliamentary approval. It was the same with the payouts to war veterans without a budgetary allocation in 1997. In a similar vein, he said he let the war veterans break the law during the land invasions to spite Wilson who had refused to use the British army against Smith. At least George W Bush and Tony Blair had to produce “sexed up” reports to sway public opinion and the people’s representatives in favour of the Afghan and Iraqi invasions.


Mugabe was furious when the bishops who produced the Zimbabwe We Want document said the Lancaster House constitution was not homegrown. They said the constitution did not represent the consent of the people. Their reasoning was that those who participated in the Lancaster House negotiations did so on behalf of “the people” but they were not elected representatives. But Mugabe was there and he believes he is “our people”. People should not be consulted.


Nobody disputes the crucial role played by war veterans and our leaders in the liberation of this country. Each one of them made sacrifices either as a group and severally for a better Zimbabwe. Each one of them left the country when the call to national duty could not be resisted. It was a dangerous plunge into an uncertain future. Many have not been accounted for to this day, hence the symbolic significance of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the National Heroes Acre.


But to then claim that a homegrown constitution could be cobbled together in the musty halls of Lancaster House in England is to stretch the metaphor of representation beyond belief. That up to 18 amendments have had to be made to that document since 1980 bears enough testimony to the inadequacies of the negotiation process, and those defects reflect the power imbalances between those involved and the compromises that had to be made for the sake of progress and to hasten majority rule.


More fundamentally, to say the Lancaster House constitution is homegrown is to suggest that government sometimes plays frivolous games like setting up the 1999 Constitutional Commission and conducting a costly referendum in February 2000. It is to trash the votes of thousands of Zimbabweans, chiefly war veterans and other Zanu PF supporters, whom government persuaded to vote for its draft constitution.


The truth about Mugabe’s umbrage is that a new constitution would trim the powers of the president or even reduce his office to a ceremonial one in favour of an executive prime minister. It’s nothing to do with speeding up decision-making, otherwise we would not have reverted to a bicameral system of parliament.


Second but equally important, a new constitution would strip Muagbe of the power to appoint 18 unelected parliamentarians who give him the same advantage as the 20 reserved seats for whites in the original Lancaster House constitution. He can’t conceive of a future beyond himself. Double-standards. Or am I raising the moral bar too high for an African government!


The point I am making is simple: Is it democratic that a few individuals fighting an independence war outside the country can thereafter return to foist a constitution on the nation without putting it to a referendum, and then declare it non-negotiable? Can that same constitution equitably and adequately address the traumatic experiences caused by the need to change property relations in the upheaval of the current land reform? What are the views of constitutional experts on Mugabe’s claims?


Secondly, what exactly was Mugabe referring to by “sacrosanct” and “non-negotiable”? Was it the constitution or Zimbabwe’s sovereign right? How far constitutional is it that a head of state can foreclose debate on any issue of national significance?


Then there is the opposition’s response to the National Vision document. Arthur Mutambara says it lacks “economic vision” while Morgan Tsvangirai says everything depends on Mugabe and Zanu PF reforming themselves for the good of the country.


The basic error they and other critics of the document make is to view it as a rival roadmap to “challenge” their own. It is not. The bishops’ vision is an end, the ultimate paradise, it is the destination. It is a “vision” in the classical biblical sense. What Zimbabwe needs are the transformative processes and forces to get us there, the combatants and strategists to lead us towards that vision. That is the task at hand.