Three years after sweeping into power through a military coup and promising a new and unfolding democracy, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa is now being compared to his authoritarian predecessor Robert Mugabe as he pushes a series of changes to the constitution to consolidate his hold on power.
President Mnangagwa, 78, a protégé of the late Mr Mugabe who ruled Zimbabwe with an iron fist for 37 years, in the past fortnight forced through Parliament a raft of changes to the constitution that will see him determine his successor, among other privileges.
The latest amendments to the constitution that was only adopted in 2013 will see the president handpicking his vice presidents and senior judges.
Constitutional experts described the Constitutional Amendment Bill Number 2 as unconstitutional and poorly drafted while civil society organisations and the opposition said it was a sign that Zimbabwe was sliding back to authoritarianism.
“The haste with which the Bill is being rushed through Parliament is almost indecent,” said legal think-tank Veritas.
“It is certainly inappropriate for a Bill that will amend the country’s supreme law.”
Veritas said Zimbabweans, who overwhelmingly voted for the new constitution only eight years ago, should have been adequately consulted before the amendments were railroaded through the legislature.
David Coltart, a legal expert and former Education minister, said the passing of the latest amendments to the constitution “undermine the independence of the judiciary and greatly consolidate (President) Mnangagwa’s power.”
Critics say the powers that President Mnangagwa was seeking had been taken away from Mr Mugabe because he had become 'an imperial president.'
The Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum, a coalition of 20 human rights organisations, drew parallels with the Mugabe years as it assessed Mnangagwa’s move.
“The passage of the Bill, coming days after the passage of Amendment No.1 by the Senate, marks a clear sign of relapse,” the Forum said.
“The amendments we are facing expose rank insecurity on the part of government, when it participated in the constitution making process.
“It appears that participation was a self-preserving act of political preservation as opposed to a vision setting exercise and a commitment to follow the constitutional and democratic trajectory.
“Zimbabweans participated in the referendum with 94.5% voting in favour, believing all were genuine in the process.”
During the constitution making process, the ruling Zanu PF strongly resisted clauses that would have disqualified Mr Mugabe from the 2013 elections such as the introduction of term limits and introducing an age limit for presidential candidates.
In the end, the political parties struck a compromise with some of the clauses set to come into effect during the 2023 elections such as the direct election of vice presidents.
The amendments that were approved by Parliament will scrap the clause on the election of vice presidents and give the president the power to make direct appointments.
“Ironically, while the current government had prior to 2013 refused to back provisions that appeared to be targeting individuals, at that time president Robert Mugabe, it seems some of the present amendments are person specific, in particular as they relate to the office of the chief justice,” the Forum added.
“It is clear that the Bill seeks to consolidate and solidify the president’s position ahead of the 2023 elections and beyond.”
Former Finance minister Tendai Biti, who is also a constitutional law expert, said Zimbabwe was once again descending into a dictatorship under President Mnangagwa.
“The constitution is sacrosanct and should not be a tool for authoritarian consolidation,” Mr Biti said. “We will fight this abomination.
“(President Mnangagwa’s) disrespect of the constitution and violation of decency and the rule of law sets him apart as the greatest existential threat to the Zimbabwe state.
“In three years, Zimbabwe has descended into a little outpost of fascism and state failure, thanks to politics of greed, violence and idiocy.”
In the past year, President Mnangagwa has been accused of using the cover of Covid-19 to close the democratic space after dozens of his opponents were thrown into jail for allegedly violating lockdown regulations.
Hundreds of civic society and opposition activists have also been abducted and tortured for allegedly organising protests against the government.
On two occasions since his controversial election in 2018, the military has been accused of killing protestors and raping women.
President Mnangagwa has also been accused of trying to create a one-party state after at least 48 opposition MDC Alliance legislators and about 80 councillors were controversially recalled in the past one year.
His government also suspended the holding of by-elections a year ago, citing Covid-19. But the ruling party has been allowed to hold public meetings in violation of the lockdown regulations.
Western countries have responded by adding more targeted sanctions against people linked to the ruling party and security forces for their alleged roles in violation of human rights and the killing of protestors.
Zimbabwe has been under targeted sanctions from various countries and the European Union since 2002 for alleged electoral theft and human rights violations that were blamed on Mr Mugabe’s regime.