RESIDENTS associations and civil society organisations have ganged up to stop President Emmerson Mnangagwa government from rushing through a controversial constitutional amendment under the cover of COVID-19 lockdown, with public hearings for the Bill set to start today.
BY SILAS NKALA/MOSES MATENGA/VENERANDA LANGA
The groups have filed urgent court applications at the High Court in Harare and Bulawayo to defer the process until the COVID-19 threat is over. They argued that the hearings would curtail majority participation due to the stringent lockdown restrictions.
Despite reservations from various interest groups, Clerk of Parliament Kennedy Chokuda last week gave notice that the Portfolio Committee on Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs would conduct nationwide public hearings on the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment No 2 Bill from today until Friday.
Mnangagwa’s own Political Actors Dialogue (Polad) described the move as “irresponsible” as it exposed the public to COVID-19 infection given the spike in cases to 383 as of yesterday.
The High Court in Harare and Bulawayo will today and tomorrow preside over separate urgent chamber applications filed by Habakkuk Trust, and the Chitungwiza and Manyame Residents Trust seeking to stop the public hearings. The groups cited Parliament, Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi, Speaker of the National Assembly Jacob Mudenda and Senate president Mabel Chinomona and the Attorney-General Prince Machaya as respondents.
In Bulawayo, the matter will be heard by Justice Nokuthula Moyo today while Justice David Mangota will hear similar arguments from Manyame and Chitungwiza residents tomorrow.
In an application filed on Thursday last week by Job Sibanda of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR), Habakkuk Trust chief executive officer Dumisani Nkomo said: “The conduct of Parliament, Chokuda and Ziyambi was grossly unreasonable and holding public hearings at a time of the outbreak of coronavirus would defeat the very noble purpose of inviting the input of the public to any proposed constitutional amendments. While the process of soliciting for input into the proposed constitutional amendments cannot be stopped, it must await normalisation of the situation in the country and no prejudice will be suffered by the respondents namely Parliament, Chokuda and Ziyambi.
“The process of soliciting for people’s input into the proposed constitutional amendments should be stopped and only proceeded with after the country shifts to level one stage of the national lockdown, which is the period which prevailed before the outbreak of coronavirus and before a state of disaster was declared by government in March. If Parliament, Chokuda and Ziyambi intend to proceed with the public hearings in the midst of the current health pandemic, they must ensure that all precautions are taken to prevent and contain the disease at such public gatherings.”
The respondents are yet to oppose the applications.
Speaking to NewsDay yesterday on the planned hearings, Polad governance and legislative agenda sub-committee chairperson and constitutional lawyer, Lovemore Madhuku, said his committee had recommended that the Constitutional Amendment Bill be withdrawn, but was shocked to hear that the hearings were proceeding.
“That is nonsense. Parliament is acting in an irresponsible manner given the COVID-19 threats. They are threatening the public in many ways. Those who will attempt to attend will not make it because of the restrictions they have set due to the national lockdown. The hearings are not classified under essential services,” he said.
“They are trying to disempower citizens. Imagine a country that cannot open schools wants to say to people come for the amendment hearings. What is the rush?”
He said the move was unconstitutional and the environment was not safe, and suggested that the hearings be conducted in November.
“They have just suggested on virtual meetings but they have not told us how that will happen. It is unwarranted and I hear there are some people who have gone to court. I just hope the judges will consider all these things.”
“The Polad position is that the Bill be withdrawn to allow more consultations and it is unfortunate if this is the way they have chosen to respond to our position as Polad. They are choosing to proceed in such a chaotic environment against what we agreed as Polad,” Madhuku said.
He said the only other suspicion was that legislators were desperate for allowances and wanted to use the hearings to justify payment.
Opposition MDC Alliance deputy spokesperson Clifford Hlatywayo said the development was meant to overturn the people’s wishes in the Constitution.
“What the people want is full implementation of the Constitution, not these amendments,” he said.
“Citizens participated in the constitution-making process and voted for it, now they have failed to implement the Constitution and all they want to amend it all for the love of power, selfish gains.”
The Bill seeks to give the President the sole authority to nominate and appoint senior officers of the Judiciary, thus rendering citizens mere spectators, whereas the current position allows citizens to publicly interview these officials.
If the amendments sail through, judges and the Prosecutor-General will now serve at the whim of the President.
The Bill also seeks to remove the presidential running mate clause, set to take effect in 2023 and increase the number of appointed ministers from five to seven, with observers indicating that it was also meant to settle Zanu PF’s succession matrix.
The Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (Zimcodd) said it was regrettable that government was prioritising constitutional amendments when it had not yet fully implemented provisions of the Constitution adopted in 2013.
The National Association of Youth Organisations added: “The magnitude of the proposed amendments require for citizens to fully exercise their rights to association, assembly and expression in formations of their choice to enable informed and proactive citizens’ participation.”