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Friday, 19 November, 1999, 13:29 GMT
Zimbabwe constitution: Just a bit of paper?
Commissioners considered hundreds of thousands of submissions

Commonwealth Secretary-General Emeka Anyaoku has urged Zimbabwe to adopt a genuinely democratic new constitution. As the Constitutional Commission wraps up its work, Grant Ferrett considers whether a new constitution will make a difference.

When Zimbabwe became independent nearly 20 years ago, it was with a constitution negotiated at Lancaster House in London, as part of a peace agreement ending years of civil war. The negotiations lasted less than four months.

Now Zimbabwe is once again racing through the constitution-making process. Just six months after the creation of a government-appointed Constitutional Commission, a final draft is due to be presented to President Robert Mugabe on 29 November. The cause of the urgency is that the new legal framework is due to be in place before elections, scheduled for next April.

The commission's spokesman, Professor Jonathan Moyo, acknowledges that the timetable appears ambitious.

"Looking back though, at the degree of participation and enthusiasm," says Professor Moyo, "it now seems as though somebody was working through divine guidance."

Long awaited

Reforms since independence have increased President Mugabe's powers
In spite of the current rush, the need for constitutional reform has long been recognised by all sides. The ruling party, Zanu-PF raised the matter at its annual conference two years ago. And inaugurating the Constitutional Commission at the end of May, President Mugabe said, "Every sovereign people is entitled to give birth to its own constitution."

But critics of the government have been the most enthusiastic in their demands for constitutional reform.

A broad alliance of opposition parties, church groups, trades unions and civic organisations, the National Constitutional Assembly (NCA) was formed nearly three years ago to highlight what they believed to be the shortcomings of the amended Lancaster House constitution.

Power to the president

The NCA points to the fact that the 15 constitutional amendments passed since 1980 have had the effect of concentrating power in the hands of the president. The post of prime minister was scrapped in favour of an executive president in 1987. The upper chamber of parliament, the Senate, has been abolished.

A leading NCA figure, the trade union leader and head of the newly formed Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, has denounced President Mugabe for abusing the current constitution.

"Zimbabweans found that when we put all the authority in one man in 1987, we believed in him and not in the institution," says Mr Tsvangirai.

"Robert Mugabe has deceived us all. The man does not believe in anything but himself."


Jonathan Moyo: Wide public participation
But when the government hurriedly set up a Constitutional Commission earlier this year, the NCA refused to participate. Its concerns centred on the fact that all of the nearly 400 commissioners were picked by President Mugabe.

Although some high-profile government critics were sworn in, the vast majority were members or supporters of Zanu-PF. Moreover, the president has the right to amend or completely ignore the commission's findings, as he has with previous commissions of inquiry.

Professor Moyo dismisses such fears.

"Because this has been such a public process, it's difficult to imagine that once it goes to the president, suddenly things will start disappearing."

Wide consultation

Professor Moyo's confidence is based largely on the fact that hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans have taken part in public consultation exercise organised by the constitutional commission. At meeting after meeting the message has been the same:
  • the powers of the president must be reduced
  • his term of office must be limited
  • the size of his cabinet - currently about 50 - must be scaled down.

Unusually for Zimbabwe, such views have been reported in the tightly controlled state-run media on an almost daily basis. The effect has been to create the impression of a general opening up to debate.

But one well-known government critic, Lupi Mushayakarara, is more sceptical.

She joined the commission in the belief that President Mugabe, 75, was looking for a dignified way to step down. Several months on, she's changed her mind: "The constitution is just a piece of paper," Ms Mushayakarara says. "It won't transform Zimbabwe into a democratic society."

"Zanu-PF may well produce a constitution which appears to address the concerns of the people, but its main concern is power. Unless there's a miracle, Zanu is assured of remaining in office after next year's elections."

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See also:
15 Nov 99 |  Africa
The real Commonwealth Summit
12 Nov 99 |  Africa
Joy as Kenyan parliament secures new powers
17 Nov 99 |  Africa
Zimbabwe gay rights face dim future

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