OVER the past 35 years since Independence in 1980, political conflicts, both major and minor, have landed at the doorstep of Zimbabwe’s judiciary and sometimes resolved there, every so often controversially.
Editor’s Memo with Dumisani Muleya
As a result of the controversies, particularly over disputed election results, judges have in recent years been subjected to increasingly stinging and aggressive criticism — including polemics — by lawyers, media and public officials, raising questions of judicial independence.
Chief Justice Godfrey Chid-yausiku had to intervene this week to warn the “public media” — curiously he did not mention politicians even if they are the brashest felons — to refrain from commenting on cases which are still sub judice.
This was after President Robert Mugabe, ironically the main offender even when he has a duty to respect and uphold the constitution which guarantees separation of powers including judicial independence, upped the ante last week when he brazenly threatened judges over former Zanu PF bigwigs, Didymus Mutasa and Rugare Gumbo’s court challenge on the legality of the ruling party’s dodgy congress and its resolutions last December.
“If there is a magistrate or judge who will want to preside over this matter, then I would like to know where he/she went to school and where he/she got the powers to rule over Zanu PF,” Mugabe shamelessly opined.
“I will ask because this matter is not one for the courts. If we say we no longer want you in our party and want you to leave, is that a problem? Our party evokes fear. So don’t worry about those who take the party to the courts.
“Courts are supposed to deal with other legal matters which are governed by our constitution and not Zanu PF matters which have their own structures and how these matters need to be dealt with.”
Now, without getting bogged down on subsequent bluster, obfuscation and sophistry by Mugabe’s spin-doctors, there is no doubt this was blatant and naked political intimidation which is self-explanatory — easy to follow and understand.
In fact, it was a ruthless assault on the rule of law, due process and a total disgrace to democracy.
It evoked memories the dark days after 2000 when judges were brutally purged for their colour and political reasons, not on the basis of competence and delivery on their jurisprudential mandates, while benches were packed with puny cronies given farms and trinkets, some of them incompetent as it later turned out.
The political significance of Mugabe’s shabby utterances is that he fears Mutasa’s case might open a can of worms, hence his desperate bid to nip it in the bud.
But what makes Mugabe’s remarks particularly scandalous and appalling is that he is the president with a duty to respect and uphold the constitution, the supreme law of the land.
This is worsened by the fact that he is supposed to be a lawyer as he often reminds us. Then there is the issue of him being a litigant in the case.
While judges are mortals who can be influenced by such factors as socialisation, beliefs, and attitudes towards moral and ethical questions — tacit chromosomes in their minds attributable to background, experience and training, among other issues, they must be free from political interference, pressure and intimidation.
Yet to expect that understanding from Mugabe could be asking for too much. His recent record shows he has no respect for the rule of law. This partly explains why the country, the economy in particular, is in such shambles engulfed in a sea of poverty.
Politicians intoxicated with power can be a nasty piece of work and tend to do sinister things, including attacking judges.
Given that an independent judiciary is the bedrock of a constitutional democracy, judges must resist such sort of intimidation.