“Yesterday shocked the whole world, it shocked Zambia that the court overturned the decision of the Registrar of Societies,” said former foreign affairs minister Harry Kalaba after his Democratic Party won a deregistration case in the High Court last week.
He added: “They surprised all of us with what they did. For me this is a huge milestone in implementing the confidence in the judiciary. The courts have told us that both the weak and the power are equal before the law. Really for me, I celebrate this judgment because it’s a huge milestone not only in our democratic dispensation but also in instilling confidence in the judiciary.”
Well, it is time for Mr Kalaba to celebrate because one judge has demonstrated true independence from external influence. But we would like to warn the opposition leader not to be fooled into thinking that the courts will be there for him when it matters the most.
While Mr Kalaba is dancing and singing “Jesus is Lord”, we would like to draw his attention and that of other interested Zambians to another judge who has stunned the world with a contrary shocking decision. Today we would like to talk about the letter of complaint against UPND leader Mr Hakainde Hichilema to the Chief Justice, and the subsequent response from Acting Chief Justice Marvin Mwanamwambwa.
A Lufwanyama resident Henry Chilombo complained that while in South Africa, Mr Hichilema accused Constitutional Court judges of being corrupt, a claim which the complainant found contemptuous. But it was the response to this letter that has puzzled legal brains.
“The procedure on contempt of court was that, it is the prerogative of the court or adjudicator attacked or insulted to have the culprit summoned and charged with contempt. In this particular case, it was the Constitutional Court that was attacked and insulted. Thus the Constitutional Court judges are aware of the attacks and insults, but for unexplained reasons, they did not charge the culprit with contempt of court. In essence, it is not for the Chief Justice, Deputy Chief Justice or the Supreme Court, to make an inquiry into the matter. In fact, the matter does not need an inquiry because evidence is already there,” responded learned Justice Mwanamwambwa upon receiving the complaint, and on behalf of Chief Justice Irene Mambilima.
American-based Zambian Professor Muna Ndulo could not resist questioning the judge’s ethical rectitude and respect for the settled tenets of due process. He noted that justice Mwanamwambwa’s response was strange because it gave a verdict without due process of the law, thereby breaching the principles of judicial conduct.
“The task of judging implies a measure of autonomy which involves the Judge’s conscience alone. Therefore, judicial independence requires not only the independence of the judiciary as an institution from other branches of Government; it also requires judges being independent from each other. In other words, judicial independence depends not only on freedom from undue external influence, but also freedom from undue influence which might in some situations come from the actions or attitudes of other judges,” commented the Cornell University Law lecturer.
Prof Ndulo could not have put it any better. Judges are not fashioned to hold the same opinion on a given case. That is the basic reason of having more than one judge in the courts of appeal. This is the reason why Constitutional Court and Supreme Court judges sit in odd numbers so that in an event of a split decision, the majority verdict holds. No one deserves to be influenced by the opinion of another judge.
But, there is nothing about all these arguments that justice Mwanamwamba doesn’t know. The learned judge has not come from ZIALE today for anyone to teach him legal ethics; he already knows everything there is to know about professional conduct. He knows that him being a superior judge, his opinion means that if Mr Hichilema was charged with contempt on this matter, the Constitutional Court would be expected to deliver nothing less than a conviction.
Since Prof Ndulo doesn’t live in Zambia. We will assume the responsibility of informing him about the political maneuvers happening in his country, to which Justice Mwanamwambwa seems to have subscribed.
Since the 2015 presidential election that ushered in President Edgar Lungu, there has been a relentless desire by the ruling Patriotic Front to rid the opposition. It has been the PF’s agenda number one to completely obliterate the UPND, or at least remove Mr Hichilema from the helm of the opposition party.
In 2015, Mr Davies Chama who was PF secretary general then, said Zambia would be better if it returned to a one party state; and he went further to declare that by 2021 PF would make sure that there would be no opposition. The next thing we saw was a maneuver by ruling party stooges to change the Constitution so that elections would be held every 10 years – arguing that five years was too short a term for any meaningful development. But they ran out of time.
When the PF faced Mr Hichilema in the 2016 elections, they were terrified. They knew that their chances of winning the election were slim, and indeed they had to manipulate, abuse the electoral process to emerge victorious. The PF doesn’t want a repeat of that experience. They cannot afford to take that risk again, so they have redeemed the agenda to get rid of competition.
When the treason charges failed to break Mr Hichilema in 2017, the PF moved to the next plan in line – change the Constitution to limit the number of times a person can contest the presidential elections. That too seems to be a failed scheme, as it seems to have been rejected by the international community that funds Zambia’s elections.
This agenda is what brings Justice Mwanamwambwa into the picture. We can bet our lives in argument that the Lufwanyama resident who wrote the letter of complaint about Mr Hichilema to the Chief Justice is not acting alone. In fact, we doubt that he actually wrote the letter himself.
Our conclusion is that the PF is now looking for an offence which they can use to stop Mr Hichilema from participating in the next general elections. After observing that the UPND tolerated the State to jail their leader on trumped up charges without revolting, the PF want to push it a little further and ensure that Mr Hichilema is locked out of the next electoral process.
We didn’t need to be rocket scientists, prophets or even magicians to know that the PF was sponsoring the Lufwanyama resident to initiate a new wave of attack on Mr Hichilema towards this goal. The lightning speed at which the ruling party moved to advertise that complaint in newspapers, together with its favourable response from the Deputy Chief Justice, said it all. Any doubts about this were erased by the immediate supplementary articles in support, written by the leadership of another PF surrogate organization called Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI).
So, here we are Prof Ndulo. Do not be surprised by the conduct of Justice Mwanamwambwa because he was not expressing his professional ignorance in that unusual response to a complaint from an uninterested political nonentity. Rather, the learned Deputy Chief Justice was simply identifying the buttered side of his bread.