Academics clash over new constitution

Zimbabwe is in the process of crafting a new constitution to replace the one agreed at Lancaster House in Britain in 1979 – a year before then Rhodesia gained independence. Over the years, the current constitution – condemned by opposition parties, student unions, churches and non-governmental-organisations – was amended 19 times, mainly to give an increasingly autocratic President Robert Mugabe the sweeping powers he used to maintain his 29-year rule.

Mugabe entered into a power-sharing deal in February with opposition Movement for Democratic Change leader and current Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai, in a bid to end sanctions and international isolation. One of the conditions of forming the government was developing a new constitution.

But two camps have emerged in academic circles and among student unions: those championing the crafting of the new constitution and those agitating for its rejection at a referendum on the grounds the process is not people-driven – rather, it is being led by a 25-member parliamentary select committee.

University of Zimbabwe law lecturer Douglas Mwonzora, an MP for Tsvangirai’s party and chairman of the parliamentary constitutional select committee, maintains the committee is running a people-driven process. His grounds are that lawmakers are elected representatives of the people and that civic groups would be invited to take up positions and participate.

Supporting the parliamentary initiative led by Mwonzora are law students and academics now serving in the inclusive government, including four former professors. The most prominent figure among those campaigning for a ‘no’ vote as the process is not people-driven is Dr Lovemore Madhuku, a University of Zimbabwe constitutional law lecturer and chair of the civic body, the National Constitutional Assembly.

Madhuku has said the process underway in Zimbabwe was "the worst ever attempt at writing a constitution and it originates from a group of politicians who believe that what matters is the level of their popularity". In an article published by local newspapers he argued:

"It is not the role of parliament to spearhead constitution-making. Parliament is there to enact laws, which are subordinate to the constitution as prescribed by the people. It is contrary to the fundamental notions of good governance for the ruling politicians of the day to seek to dominate the process of constitution-making under the guise of being representatives of the people.

"The expression ‘people-driven’ was coined as the direct opposite of ‘parliament-driven’ or ‘government-driven’. What makes a process people-driven is the absence of leadership by politicians."

The starting point of a people-driven process, Madhuku argued, was leadership by an independent, non-partisan body that did not take instruction from dominant politicians and was open to people from all walks of life. Politicians and government should only be there to provide resources for such a process.

Madhuku’s views have been echoed by Professor Jonathan Moyo, the once-controversial leader of Mugabe’s propaganda machine, who is also campaigning against the current process. Moyo, now an independent MP, wrote in a paper posted on his website:

"Whereas laws are subject to change within and between parliamentary terms, the pillars of a democratic constitution, once made, are supposed to be forever…and not subject to the whims and caprices of parliaments that are the products of political winds."

Madhuku’s and Moyo’s positions have been endorsed by the Zimbabwe National Students Union, the country’s largest student union. In a statement, the union said that for a process to be people-driven it should "start with a joint government-civil society conference that will appoint an independent commission as well as setting out the agenda and terms of reference of the commission".

Student unions are hoping to take advantage of the drafting of a new constitution to push for academic freedom in a country where dozens of intellectuals have been expelled, arrested and received death threats from state agents.

Meanwhile, a survey found the majority of Zimbaweans wanted the inclusive government to treat problems in secondary and tertiary education as its top priority. In the survey, 80% of respondents said they supported the inclusive government and 81% said they believed it would address the country’s political and economic crisis.