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Two years after voters approved a progressive constitution, repressive laws remain on the books.

In March this year, police in eastern Zimbabwe arrested Samson Jackson for mocking the country’s 91-year-old president.

“Robert Mugabe is about to die, so why do you waste your time following his party?” Mr Jackson is alleged to have asked a public meeting of the ruling party in Manicaland province. Police charged him with contravening what is commonly referred to as the “insult law” that makes disrupting a public gathering a crime. If found guilty, he faces up to 20 years in prison.

The 35-year-old is just one of 80 people arrested for insulting the president in the past five years, according to Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights. Now citizens are challenging the law because they say it contravenes the country’s new constitution–which protects freedom of speech.

Zimbabweans adopted a new constitution in March 2013, the first since the country’s independence in 1980. The new charter places a limit of two five-year terms on the president, includes a bill of rights, dual citizenship and guarantees–among other entitlements–freedom of expression.

But the anticipation that greeted that new document has faded as Mr Mugabe’s ruling Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (Zanu-PF) drags its feet calibrating the country’s laws to the new constitution.

“There are certain new features in the new constitution and the laws must now be adjusted accordingly,” said Chris Mhike, a lawyer based in Harare, the capital. “The attorney-general’s office has put the figure at over 400 laws that need to be aligned to the new constitution,” he said.

Aside from the “insult law”, the Criminal Procedure and Evidence Act (CPEA) is another law seen as anti-constitutional. Legal observers said the law needs to reflect the provisions of the new constitution, which stipulate that arrested persons are entitled to appear in court within 48 hours, including weekends. Under the old constitution, arrested persons appeared in court only during working days, and could be kept in jail for up to seven days, even after a judge had granted bail. This section must be amended to coincide with the new constitution’s two-day limit.

The electoral laws are another sore spot.

The new constitution mandates the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission to register voters and compile the voters’ roll. Yet the Electoral Amendment Act, still in force, gives these crucial responsibilities to the registrar-general, Tobaiwa Mudede. Mr Mudede has held this post since independence in 1980. Opposition parties and others have repeatedly accused him of manipulating the voters’ list to keep Mr Mugabe in power.

The government blames scarce financial resources for the slow pace of realignment. Nearly 92% of monthly revenue goes to paying public servants and consequently the government has little left for administrative purposes, explained Patrick Chinamasa, Zimbabwe’s finance minister in his budget presentation last November. The civil service has swelled from employing 315,000 in 2009 to 554,000 in 2014, he said.

But others blame Zanu-PF’s lack of political will. “What we have been told is that the government does not have capacity to do it [realign laws] in one go…but the same government buys vehicles and other trinkets,” said Beatrice Mtetwa, a prominent human rights lawyer.

Calibrating the 400 outstanding laws with the new constitution could have taken six months, Ms Mtetwa said. This two-year procrastination “benefits the government”, she added. Members of the ruling party “can do as they please in the absence of laws” that limit their power, “while the rest of the population does not enjoy the rights they approved”.

To expedite the realignment process, the European Union in March promised $1.3m to help the justice ministry with the legal overhaul.

Yet for many Zimbabweans these funds do not inspire hope. “There never was sincerity on the part of Zanu-PF from the onset to usher in a new constitutional order… as long as it threatened the status quo,” Ms Mtetwa said. “Zimbabweans were tricked.”

Controversial laws such as the “insult”, criminal procedure and Electoral Amendment Act are likely to remain in place in the near future.

This will become increasingly relevant in the lead-up to the 2018 presidential and parliamentary elections. The “insult law” makes vigorous campaigning against the incumbent a risky exercise since any statements viewed as denigrating the president could lead to incarceration. The electoral law in its current form makes it easier for the government to manipulate the voters’ roll in its favour because it remains unavailable for inspection by the opposition and the public.

Meanwhile, political observers fear that Zanu-PF could use its two-thirds parliamentary majority to amend sections of the new constitution it does not favour.

This would include scrapping statutory bodies such as the electoral, human rights, gender, media and anti-corruption commissions mandated by the new constitution. These independent agencies are expensive, Mr Chinamasa said last March.

The ruling party is “talking about amending the constitution before they have even implemented it”, said Charles Mangongera, a senior researcher at the Southern African Political Economy Series Trust, a think-tank based in Harare. Citizens’ anger is mounting because they have not enjoyed their new constitutional rights, he added.

By not realigning old laws with the new constitution, the party has clearly demonstrated that it will not embrace meaningful change. Zanu-PF sold voters a dummy constitution in 2013. What will it pull out of its bag of tricks at the 2018 poll?

Ray Ndlovu is a journalist based in Zimbabwe. He writes for South Africa’s Business Day, Sunday Times and City Press newspapers. In Zimbabwe, his work is published in the Financial Gazette, Zimbabwe’s largest business weekly.

Source : Africa In Fact

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