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Fate of a poor schemer for power

IF Joshua Nkomo was the “

Father of the Nation” and Simon Muzenda the “Soul of the Nation”, how should we describe the country’s most eminent legal scientist?


President Robert Mugabe couldn’t find an equally pithy description for Eddison Zvobgo to etch his name in the heart of the nation. That perhaps reflects Zvobgo’s mercurial character as he traversed the Zimbabwean political landscape.


What Mugabe did was give us a definition of what constitutes a national hero, the one enduring characteristic that separated Zvobgo from many of the dubious characters today laid at Heroes’ Acre.


He said in his condolence message: “Zvobgo was indeed a true nationalist who faithfully espoused the principles and objectives of our liberation struggle and upheld them to the end.”


With the death of Zvobgo, Mugabe said, the nation had “lost one of the great and sharp legal minds upon whom the ruling party and government had relied for his professional advice and craftsmanship of the country’s legal instruments”.


It is a tragic tale of our political vicissitudes that such a towering political and legal figure spent his last days in almost enforced obscurity, because the ruling Zanu PF does not allow individuals to rise above the herd.


But there is no doubting that Zvobgo was also the author of his unenviable end. In the early days of Zimbabwe’s Independence Zvobgo clearly saw himself as standing in the line to succeed Mugabe, first as prime minister and then president of the country.


But in crafting the constitutional amendment that gave us the overbearing executive presidency in 1987, Zvobgo sealed his own fate as a poor schemer for power. Instead of ensuring there were sufficient checks and balances and a sufficiently strong parliament to rein in the executive, Zvobgo gave a hostage to fortune. That amendment has been the albatross around the neck of the nation and indeed around the necks of all those wishing to succeed Mugabe.


So it is that Mugabe can today proclaim how Zvobgo meets all the criteria of those he says qualify to rule Zimbabwe yet Zimbabweans cannot choose Mugabe’s successor. So it is that Mugabe can praise Zvobgo’s “great and sharp legal mind” because the amendment ensured his position as executive president was impregnable until he —  and not the nation — decided he had hung on long enough.


It is almost an oxymoron to belong to Zanu PF and be independent-minded at the same time. Unfortunately that is what Zvobgo tried to do. He criticised the party. That led to his gradual fall from grace — from Legal Affairs minister to an ineffectual portfolio as Minister of Mines and then Minister without Portfolio and finally out in the cold completely. Because of his maverick nature, Zvobgo found himself aligned to Dzikamai Mavhaire’s faction in Masvingo which believed Mugabe had become the nation’s greatest liability who should go.


He had a huge constituency in Masvingo and beyond. His intellectual prowess endeared him to many across the political divide. His speaking skills could have won him votes from a nation long disenchanted by Mugabe’s economic failures. But Zvobgo could not bring himself to be anything other than what he was in essence — Zanu PF.


Come the presidential election in 2002, Zvobgo told of the story of the madman from Ngomahuru psychiatric unit who, instead of passing on the baton in the relay, ran with it into the nearby mountains.


Enemies were ranged against Zvobgo accusing him of not campaigning vigorously enough for President Mugabe. He was even accused of campaigning for Morgan Tsvangirai.


As fate would have it, ill-health saved him from being hauled over the coals by “mafikizolos” who knew perfectly well he couldn’t be a member of the opposition.


Zvobgo dismissed the allegations with characteristic scorn as “ill-founded rumours peddled by ciphers”. He described his detractors as corrupt opportunists.


His sharp attack on the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Bill as chairman of the Parliamentary Legal Committee was the final outrage on the dead conscience of Zanu PF. He wondered aloud why the Information department wanted such “frightening powers”? He said the Bill was the “most calculated and determined assault on our liberties, which are guaranteed by the constitution”.


“Ask yourself whether it is rational for a government in a democratic and free society to require registration, licences and ministerial certificates in order for people to speak. It is a sobering thought,” he said.


The last we heard of Zvobgo’s voice was in defence of the Iraq invasion. He defied the party mob and said leaders who abuse and kill their own people did not deserve to remain in power. It was the heresy of regime change. His terminal illness silently took him out of the limelight and saved him the embarrassment of having to explain who else he thought needed to be ousted from power.


So as we mourn the passing of a dedicated freedom fighter in the bush and at law and a “nationalist who faithfully espoused the principles and objectives of our liberation struggle up to the end”, let us not forget those ideals have not been fulfilled. In fact, most of our “liberties” are in grave danger from opportunistic mafikizolos.


While Zvobgo cherished most of the liberties that political independence promised, he died almost a forgotten hero who managed to survive this long because of his personal wealth.


While the jury will be out for a very long time on the quantum of his contribution to our freedom and the legal history of this country, what cannot be denied is that Zvobgo was part, and also the victim, of a party that is unforgiving in dealing with wayward members and whose only homage to independent-minded heroes is writing their epitaphs.

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