Chiefs: Whose chiefs?

Paidamoyo Muzulu

CHIEFS in Zimbabwe have always enjoyed an iconic position in the community. They are the embodiment and protector of the communities’ culture and values. However, of late they are dabbling into partisan politics, particularly during the run up to general elections on behalf of the ruling party Zanu PF. August 2023 polls look no different.

On Wednesday President Emmerson Mnangagwa addressed chiefs and headmen at a conference in Bulawayo. During the address, Mnangagwa told his audience that his government was working tirelessly to improve the lives and social welfare of the chiefs. The President promised that each chief will get a new off-road vehicle and that soon they will have a new building to conduct their business from as the National Council of Chiefs.

“We have 291 chiefs and all of them will get vehicles. We also got a grant from the government of the People’s Republic of China for the construction of a new Parliament building,” Mnangagwa said.

“We will soon vacate  the current buildings and create office space for the National Council of Chiefs.”

This was a new public announcement that has been kept top secret. Never before had the government revealed what was going to happen to the old parliament buildings.

Mnangagwa was not done, he continued by being clear to the chiefs that he was seeking their support in the coming general elections.

“We are going to have elections around the end of July or August, we have hope in our traditional leaders to defend the identity of our culture and land by voting for the revolutionary party. For 22 years we have been under sanctions, which failed to succeed because citizens refused to follow the dictates of those imposed on them,” Mnangagwa added, as quoted in The Herald.

Was Mnangagwa merely courting 291 votes or there is a sinister motive? It is patently clear that Mnangagwa wants the chiefs to be his election agents, to campaign for him in the forthcoming elections. He wants them to dabble into partisan politics, which is not allowed by Zimbabwe’s constitution.

Section 281 (2) of the constitution is written in peremptory terms that, “Traditional leaders must not be members of political any political party or in any way participate in partisan politics, act in a partisan manner, further interests of any political party or cause; or violate the fundamental rights of any person.”

It is not new in our politics that chiefs have attended Zanu PF functions and even overtly campaigned for it. A case in point is the chiefs council president Fortune Charumbira who was censured by the High Court in 2018 for his partisan utterances.

Charumbira, in addressing chiefs in 2017, had implored them to support and campaign for Zanu PF. The election watchdog, Election Resource Centre, made an application to the High Court to remind Charumbira of his constitutional duties and obligations. Charumbira did not oppose the application.

Justice Clement Phiri ruled: “The remarks made by the first respondent (Charumbira) on October 28, 2017 on the occasion of the annual conference of the Council of Chiefs and on January 13, 2018 to the effect that traditional leaders have been supporting and must continue to support Zanu PF and it’s presidential candidate at the forthcoming 2018 elections be and is hereby declared to be in contravention of the constitution of Zimbabwe.”

The court further ordered Charumbira to issue a retraction in writing of the offensive statement and cause them to be published in national newspapers and make a statement on the national broadcaster. This, however, was not done.

The Chiefs Council in the same judgment was ordered to institute disciplinary action against Charumbira for the misconduct.

Justice Phiri ordered: “The third respondent (Minister of Local Government) be and hereby directed to commence disciplinary proceedings for misconduct against the first respondent.”

This too was never done. If it was done the outcome was never put into public domain. It is conceivable that such disdain of the courts by chiefs has emboldened them to act with impunity, fully aware nothing will happen to them.

The constitution of Zimbabwe is designed in such a way that chiefs do not need to beg the President for their social welfare since their needs are catered for at law.

Section 284 on the remuneration of chiefs reads: “An Act of Parliament must provide for the remuneration and benefits of traditional leaders to be fixed with the approval of the President given on the recommendation of the minister responsible for finance and after consultation with the minister responsible for traditional leaders.”

It is clear that chiefs’ salaries and attendant benefits are prescribed at law and therefore cannot be varied or withdrawn at the whims of the President.

The bribery of chiefs and subtle coercion by the Zanu PF government for chiefs to support and campaign for it significantly contributes to the party’s “success” in rural constituencies. The chiefs and headmen whip the people into line and at times as electoral petitions from past elections have shown, chiefs threaten to expel opposition members and activists from the areas that fall under their jurisdiction.

The question that Mnangagwa fraternised and participated in a meeting chaired by a constitutional delinquent, Charumbira, is not good for a man whose primary duty is to uphold the Constitution.

It is important for all good men and women who want democracy to flourish to document the activities of chiefs and headmen as the country gets ready for August general elections. These traditional leaders should respect and abide by the dictates of the constitution in the conduct of their duties. Any deviation should be noted and kept for future reference be it in electoral petitions.

Like the constitution says, chiefs and other traditional leaders should be apolitical in the exercise of their duties. They are leaders for the whole community, not a certain section of the community. This conduct is a stain on our democracy and should be washed.

Paidamoyo Muzulu is a journalist based in Harare. He writes here in his personal capacity.

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