Two Cabinet Ministers have gone to the public, differing over a very serious matter of public interest. Minister of Religious Affairs and National Guidance Reverend Godfridah Sumaili says the law is above everyone else and those ministers who illegally stayed in office prior to the 2016 general elections must pay back, a position which Justice Minister Given Lubinda has rubbished.
“One of the values that we promote is democracy and constitutionalism and under constitutionalism, we are saying respect the law and therefore, that is what has been ruled by the court and definitely we have to comply. The court has said so, we are a country of laws, we have to do the right thing, and there is no two ways around that,” said Rev Sumaili.
To this, Honourable Lubinda says: “I cannot be swayed by the Minister of Religious Affairs. She is at liberty to take that position but I still stand with my position that I cannot hold the office of Minister of Agriculture at my own will. I was performing an instruction given to me by a legitimately competent authority.”
Seeing this confusion among his ministers, President Lungu was compelled to provide guidance that probably only makes sense to him. He says he is consulting technocrats on how to proceed with the matter, since some ministers are refusing to pay. What is there to consult? Is the President now part of the Judiciary that he wants to overturn a court ruling? Time to consult was before you opened your mouth, Mr President, to mislead the nation and breach the Constitution. It’s pointless to consult after you have already broken the law.
We like the statement from the new State House spokesperson Isaac Chipampe who basically admits that the President misled the ministers. He told us that the President cannot interfere in the Judiciary but when reminded that Mr Lungu had already interfered by ordering ministers to stay in office, he said “that was the interpretation of the law by the Executive at the time, but the Judiciary has corrected that.” This is the basis of our opinion today.
We support the demand by Law Association of Zambia that the Justice Minister should resign for influencing other former ministers to disobey the law. But our honest opinion on this paying back issue is that it is being unfairly applied because President Lungu has been left out of the punishment, when it was his abuse of authority that led to the breakdown of the law.
In our previous editorial comments on this matter, we did question President Lungu’s competence as a lawyer. We recall that immediately after the Head of State assented to the 2016 amended Constitution, Attorney General Likando Kalaluka went to ZNBC to interpret the new law and he categorically stated that once Parliament was dissolved, all ministers would be required to vacate office.
But President Lungu had his own hangover interpretation of the Constitution and he held a gathering at State House where he bragged that he was among the best lawyers in this country. He rubbished what his Attorney General said on ZNBC’s Sunday Interview and ordered all ministers to stay in office until new office bearers were elected and sworn in so that they could “hand over”. “I’m a lawyer and I know the law, bla bla bla…” bragged Mr Lungu.
Now that the Constitutional Court has shamed President Lungu by showing how ignorant he was on the matter, we find it awkward that the consequences of disobeying the law have excluded the ringleader of the gang that illegally chewed taxpayers’ money.
Yes, all ex-ministers should pay back because ignorance is no defence in law, but we just feel there must be a way of making President Lungu pay a portion of what the ministers whom he misled are required to pay back.
If you look at Honourable Lubinda’s statement on this issue, that is basically what he is demanding. He wants the Head of State to take responsibility. He is basically telling the nation that if the President who gave the order to ministers to remain in office is an ignorant lawyer, that is not his fault. If the law was broken, he did not break it alone, there is an accomplice called Edgar Chagwa Lungu whose plea of guilty has just been confirmed by his spokesperson.
Zambians must now see that this is what authoritarian Presidents do. They make false interpretations of the law to the public so that the Judiciary can be scared to rule against them. This is the same thing that President Lungu did by declaring his eligibility for the 2021 elections ahead of the court ruling, and it worked.
Nearly all the learned State Counsel who are not serving in this government or eating with the Patriotic Front, including President Lungu’s friend Wynter Kabimba, have said the man is not eligible to stand. But somehow, the Constitutional Court decided to crucify ex-ministers in one case, while putting the President who breached the Constitution in pole position for the 2021 race. What a shame!