Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

Zimbabwe process sputters along

Earlier this year, David Law commented on next year’s constitutional referendum in Zimbabwe and on the potential ramifications for civil rights in that country. With November deepening however, and the vote approaching, it is time to look at Zimbabwe’s constitutional chaos from another angle – separation of powers.

Even for a country located in a neighborhood where poverty, violence, instability and AIDS are rampant – Robert Mugabe and his cronies in Harare have set a standard for bad governance in the region. Instability is everywhere, poverty is increasing, and after ten years of hyperinflation the Zimbabwean Central Bank recently had to drop twelve zeros from a currency valued in trillions to the dollar.

Zimbabwe’s current constitution dates from 1980 and has been amended twelve times. Unsurprisingly, the reccuring theme in those amendments has been a steady consolidation of executive power and a strengthening of the presidency vis-à-vis the other powers.

Mugabe has been the sole beneficiary of this policy, having ruled the country since Zimbabwe stopped being Southern Rhodesia – as Prime Minister (1980-1987) and then as President (1987-onwards.) For most of that time he has governed it in a brutally autocratic way, unconstitutional even by the extremely executive friendly standards outlined above.

In 2008 Mugabe had a close call however. He and his ZANU-PF party lost a first round election to Morgan Tsvangirai of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Although the MDC was violently suppressed with the full fury of the state apparatus, and Tsvangirai withdrew before the next round, the damage was done. International opinion, always weary of Mugabe, became a caustic whirlwind of cries for his removal and the African League began openly discussing possible action.

To stem the tide Mugabe negotiated – eventually acquiescing to a power sharing agreement between with the MDC and a somewhat vaporous prime ministerial position for Tsvangirai. Another term of the agreement was a new constitution.
The governmental body in charge of overseeing this undertaking is COPAC (Constitution Parliamentary Select Committee) which set up a “constitutional outreach” program. Hundreds of meetings with interest groups and professionals were held across the country, although the process was predictably plagued by violence, logistical troubles and corruption until its recent suspension. Despite the expense and political capital placed into the outreach program, most Zimbabwe watchers think that the eventual draft will be a compromise cobbled together between the ZANU-PF, the MDC and minor unity government parties – essentially icing over a rotten core.

To keep this from happening, the Law Society of Zimbabwe (LSZ) has submitted a draft of their own model constitution to COPAC calling for sweeping reforms tantamount to a complete restructuring of the government. The group, a Zimbabwean amalgam of a bar association and a lawyers union, hope that the committee takes their proposal into account when penning the real thing.

The LSZ constitution seeks to greatly dilute the power of the presidency, which it rightly claims “creates tyranny.” The prime ministership would be strengthened, popularly elected and serve as the executive head of the government, subject to term limits and votes of confidence. The weakened presidency would be appointed by The Senate and remain as a head of state, appointing judges, ministers and signing off on legislation but under the congressional direction. Security services, prisons, the army and the intelligence services – all of which have been appendages of Mugabe’s abusive reign – would pass to civilian control with managers being appointed by the legislature. Finally, the state as a whole would be decentralized with locally elected provincial governors operating with relative autonomy.

Although COPAC has yet to acknowledge the LSZ constitutional draft beyond the fact of its having been delivered, it would do well to take it into close consideration. Such a government structure would be a good one for Zimbabwe, and would go a long way towards legitimizing the structures of governance. Once that takes place Zimbabwe can begin the slow process of de-Mugabization necessary to pull Zimbabwe up from its current state as a broken nation. When this happens civil rights are likely to follow as they did in Chile, Spain and South Africa – to name but a few.

~ Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez

For further reference:
* The current constitution of Zimbabwe can be downloaded at this website:
** The Electoral Institute for the Sustainability of Democracy in Africa website has a concise chart that lays out the extent to which the Zimbabwean government is dominated by the presidency.


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