THE MUTUMWA MAWERE COLUMN
The making of an Imperial President
Zimbabwe, unlike many African countries, is lucky in that the founding fathers of a post-colonial state are still in power and they can still be subjected to the democracy test having endured in one lifetime the undemocratic practices of a colonial state and privileged to lead the formerly disenfranchised into what was expected to be a democratic dispensation.
In tackling political issues, I am acutely aware that I am not qualified to delve into these matters but have come to accept that the discourse among Zimbabweans has tended to avoid critical nation building issues that should have occupied the minds of our founding fathers.
The risk of me being misunderstood for venturing into areas in which businesspersons are generally perceived to be incompetent is high. However, I have accepted that we all have a moral duty to add our voices to the conversation that our founding fathers have avoided presumably for political expediency. I believe that the principles that informed American independence and the kind of issues that occupied the minds of the founding fathers at the time of the declaration of independence are important for us to examine and determine their applicability to Africa.
To the extent that the founding fathers of American democracy, accepting that they imposed their will on native Americans, were not strangers to oppression, their experiences and ability to lay a foundation for society that endured and became a dominant global economic force are important guide posts for us to consider if the African experience is ever going to yield similar results.
I could find no better topic for this column than to discuss the principle of separation of powers and despotic implications if this separation is not properly respected. The journey to Zimbabwe’s Imperial Presidency has to be understood in its proper context. There is need to interrogate the proposition that the transformation of Zanu PF from a liberation struggle to a political party capable of governing may not have taken place for the last twenty six years of independence. Equally it is important to appreciate, that no discussion about the kind of governance required for a democratic Zimbabwe, might not have taken place because of the liberation legacy that precluded frank and honest discussion among the founding fathers.
The constitution of Zimbabwe was drawn up as part of the 1979 Lancaster House agreement, which set the stage for Zimbabwean independence. As such, critics may argue that it was not "owned" by the people or represented their interests. Post independence constitutional amendments have been made by Zanu PF reflecting its political dominance. There is consensus among citizens that these amendments - essentially those from 1987 onwards - have concentrated power in the hands of President Robert Mugabe and entrenched Zanu PF rule.
In a strange irony, the Law and Order Maintenance Act - inherited from the days of white minority rule - was manipulated to effectively entrench the ruling party through the use of draconian powers making Mugabe the Imperial President. Among the concerns of constitutional reformers has been the scope of executive authority that undermines the concept of a separation of powers. Parliament is subordinate to the executive, and has been sidelined in many crucial ways.
Under the Presidential Powers (Temporary Measures) Act, the president is authorised to unilaterally declare an emergency and rule by decree and cancel any law. I am one of the victims of this law. Constitutional Amendment 10 granted the president sole power to dissolve parliament and to appoint or remove a vice-president and any ministers. The president also has unlimited tenure in office. Although the judiciary’s reputation for independence is questionable, it is instructive that on several occasions the executive branch has refused to abide by judicial decisions.
Although it is difficult to assign blame on the root causes of the Zimbabweans' constitutional dilemma, it is important for all who are interested in Zimbabwe’s future to reflect on why it is that case that those who desire change have chosen the constitutional challenges of Zimbabwe as a back door route to effect a regime change than attempt to develop an informed consensus on the kind of governance required by any functioning and successful democracy.
I could not find any better person in history to converse with than Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the USA, whose mind was seized with this matter as reflected in many of his writings.
Jefferson believed that the leading principle of the US Constitution was the independence of the three branches of government. Even at his time there were many legislators who genuinely believed that not to support the executive is to abandon government. I have selected some of his key conversations dealing with the doctrine of the separation of powers and how critical this principle was in crafting the republic’s constitution. In Jefferson’s many words, we can appreciate the critical role of leadership in nation building and perhaps help realise that our pioneers for democracy may have condemned Zimbabwe an imprisonment of a one party system camouflaged as enlightened democracy. These are the words of Jefferson:
"The first principle of a good government is certainly a distribution of its powers into executive, judiciary, and legislative, and a subdivision of the latter into two or three branches." --Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, 1787. ME 6:321.
"The constitution has divided the powers of government into three branches, Legislative, Executive and Judiciary, lodging each with a distinct magistracy. The Legislative it has given completely to the Senate and House of Representatives. It has declared that the Executive powers shall be vested in the President, submitting special articles of it to a negative by the Senate, and it has vested the Judiciary power in the courts of justice, with certain exceptions also in favour of the Senate." --Thomas Jefferson: Opinion on Executive Appointments, 1790. ME 3:15.
"The interference of the Executive can rarely be proper where that of the Judiciary is so." --Thomas Jefferson to George Hammond, 1793. FE 6:298.
"If the three powers maintain their mutual independence on each other our Government may last long, but not so if either can assume the authorities of the other." --Thomas Jefferson to William Charles Jarvis, 1820. ME 15:278
It was evident to Jefferson that if all powers were vested in one branch of government this would produce despotism. On the question of centralisation of power and its propensity to create despots, Jefferson had this to say:
"[A very capital defect in a constitution is when] all the powers of government, legislative, executive and judiciary result to the legislative body. The concentrating these in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. One hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIII, 1782. ME 2:162.
This may surprise many but Jefferson’s observation in 1782 is as valid today in contemporary Zimbabwe as it was then. What is instructive is the conclusion that the concentration of power in the executive is precisely what a despotic government is like. To the extent that Zimbabwe’s founding fathers, as former victims of colonial despotism were desirous of creating a democratic state, what could have gone wrong for President Mugabe to accept an Executive Presidency whose characteristic features are the same as what Jefferson was afraid of?
"[Where] there [is] no barrier between the legislative, executive, and judiciary departments, the legislature may seize the whole... Having seized it and possessing a right to fix their own quorum, they may reduce that quorum to one, whom they may call a chairman, speaker, dictator, or by any other name they please." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIII, 1782. (*) ME 2:178.
Some have defined the quorum in Zimbabwe to be one and that one person is no other than the President. With no barrier between the three branches of government, it is clear who has been the boss of Zimbabwe since independence. To what extent was this Mugabe’s creation or the folly of many is an issue that historians will have to unpack for future generations.
"I said to [President Washington] that if the equilibrium of the three great bodies, Legislative, Executive and Judiciary, could be preserved, if the Legislature could be kept independent, I should never fear the result of such a government; but that I could not but be uneasy when I saw that the Executive had swallowed up the Legislative branch." --Thomas Jefferson: The Anas, 1792. ME 1:318.
Is it conceivable to imagine President Mugabe saying the same words to anyone at any stage in his presidency? How does the conversation in the opposition fair on this defining issue? Could the Zanufication of the post-colonial state have conditioned our minds into becoming oblivious of what Jefferson saw as the consequences of the non-preservation of the equilibrium of the three branches of the government?
Jefferson also had a lot to say about the dangers of unlimited powers on any of the branches of the government which dangers have not frightened many of our African leaders. They have embraced unlimited powers while at the same time preaching democracy and at the international level demanding a veto in the security council a privilege they would not even countenance for their citizens. As one of the consequences of unlimited powers, I have become acutely aware that unless this menace is addressed then the prospect of Zimbabwe lifting itself out of the current quagmire is remote. The words of Jefferson demonstrate that he earned a right in American history as statesman for having the wisdom to ensure that the American nation-building project could never retrogress to what Zimbabweans are now accustomed to.
"Nor should [a legislative body] be deluded by the integrity of their own purposes and conclude that... unlimited powers will never be abused because themselves are not disposed to abuse them. They should look forward to a time, and that not a distant one, when corruption in this as in the country from which we derive our origin, will have seized the heads of government and be spread by them through the body of the people, when they will purchase the voices of the people and make them pay the price. Human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic, and will be alike influenced by the same causes." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIII, 1782. ME 2:164.
Can we say that the voices of the Zimbabwean people have not been purchased by our founding fathers and they have been made to pay the price for the last twenty-six years? In choosing to isolate Zimbabwe, it is important to ensure that we are cognisant that human nature is universal and the cost to society imposed by unlimited powers is not a monopoly of Zimbabwe or Africa. What is important is that it was Jefferson and not the marginalized citizen whose mind was seized with these great thoughts about the dangers of dictatorship. Based on Jefferson’s observation one can conclude that there may be a causal link between corruption and centralisation of power in the Executive.
"Mankind soon learn to make interested uses of every right and power which they possess or may assume. The public money and public liberty, intended to have been deposited with three branches of magistracy but found inadvertently to be in the hands of one only, will soon be discovered to be sources of wealth and dominion to those who hold them; distinguished, too, by this tempting circumstance: that they are the instrument as well as the object of acquisition. With money we will get men, said Caesar, and with men we will get money." --Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia Q.XIII, 1782. ME 2:164.
How true and relevant in the case of contemporary Zimbabwe. What would our founding fathers say about Jefferson’s notes? Would they agree with the logic or would they dismiss this as part of the imperialist agenda bent on confusing the masses? Could it be that the business of government has been hijacked by a few in the name of the many and the few can no longer distinguish between their interests and the national interest? My only hope is that those who have invested in regime change would also invest in new conversations so that Zimbabwe can raise the moral ground from what the founding fathers have for what may be selfish ends to a new Jefferson level where the health of the nation and the entrenchment of democracy becomes the guiding principle.
"It is the old practice of despots to use a part of the people to keep the rest in order; and those who have once got an ascendancy and possessed themselves of all the resources of the nation, their revenues and offices, have immense means for retaining their advantages." --Thomas Jefferson to John Taylor, 1798. ME 10:44.
How true and relevant. Based on this observation, would it be fair to say that a despot has led the post-colonial government of Zimbabwe or that Jefferson may have got his facts wrong. What, if any, has changed between what Jefferson was concerned about in 1798 and the reality in Zimbabwe in the year of the Lord 2006?
All I have attempted above is to show how important it is for the drivers of transformation to elevate their conversations on key defining issues of nation building as a basis of laying a firm foundation of democracy. We have observed that in many a case the founding fathers in large number of post-colonial states end up displaying the same despotic tendencies as their colonial predecessors. While this is not surprising given the universality of human nature and the propensity of many leaders to steal power from where it comes from the people by systematically tempering with the constitution so that they become Imperial Presidents while claiming the democratic space.
While there may be debate whether Zimbabweans got a raw deal over the last twenty-six years, what is undeniable is that Zimbabwe may have created one of the greatest emperors without attracting the same kind of opposition that the colonial administrations attracted leading to regime changes. It is important to ask whether independence brought real democracy or a mirage. The challenge in Africa will continue to be how to ensure that a government created on the back of the poor will live up to their expectations. Can Africa with its colonial baggage and post –colonial betrayal by the founding fathers ever create a government where the three branches of government jealously guard their independence in the national interest? The need for Africans to debate this issue cannot be overstated.
In conclusion, I cannot but help to quote Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas of the US who said: “As nightfall does not come all at once, neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is such twilight that we all must be most aware of change in the air – however slight – lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”
Zimbabweans should never despair but they have a right to be impatient particularly if there rights have been usurped by a few in the mistaken belief that they are and were guided by national interest. To the extent that the darkness in Zimbabwe is characterised by corruption of unprecedented proportions, the need to be informed about the manifestation and consequences of the centralisation of power in one person becomes urgent.
My case, like that of many, is pregnant with state corruption that appears to be the order of the day confirming Jefferson’s worst fears about the dangers of a democracy hijacked. Based on my experiences over the last few years I have come to the inescapable conclusion that without the rule of law and respect of human and property rights no one is safe and it is futile and folly to think of profits in a vacuum.
weekly column appears on New Zimbabwe.com every Monday. You can contact
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