Zimbabwe President Mnangagwa seeks constitutional changes, abandons third term bid

Wednesday May 01 2024

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa. PHOTO | REUTERS


Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa is pushing for an overhaul of the country’s constitution in a move critics say is meant to influence his succession after he abruptly abandoned a bid for a third term.

President Mnangagwa, 81, is serving his second and last term after succeeding long time ruler Robert Mugabe following a military coup in 2017, but a loud campaign was already visible for him to run for another term in four years’ time.

Soon after his controversial election last year, which were condemned by most foreign observers as not credible, the octogenarian leader started hinting on a third term with slogans that suggested he will still be in charge in 2030.

On February 21, during celebrations to mark the late Mr Mugabe’s birthday anniversary, Vice President Kembo Mohadi made the first public call by a ruling Zanu-PF official for President Mnangagwa to hang on to power.

Read: Zimbabwe’s new elections facing familiar old fears

At the same celebrations, Ezra Chadzamira, a provincial minister, told President Mnangagwa: “We all want you to stay in office beyond your presidential term. You will be there in 2030.”


At the time the president said: “I don’t have the power to say (I will stay) as this matter is in the hands of God.”

The campaign for the third term appeared to be gaining momentum as shown through sloganeering at ruling party gatherings and factional realignments reminiscent of the Mugabe years where Zanu PF succession battles eventually culminated in the military coup six years ago.

After a groundswell of opposition to the third term bid in the security sector and even from within his Zanu PF party, President Mnangagwa announced a week ago that he will no longer stay beyond his constitutionally mandated two terms.

His administration is now pushing for constitutional amendments that observers say will roll back major electoral reforms that were initiated following the intervention of the Southern African Development Community in 2008 to end the cycle of disputed polls in Zimbabwe.

Some of the proposed constitutional changes would include the transfer of key responsibilities such as voter registration from the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to a government department.

The drawing of electoral boundaries will also be taken away from the independent elections management body and given to a commission appointed by the president, if the constitutional amendments said through as expected.

President Mnangagwa’s ruling Zanu PF now controls Parliament’s lower house after controversial recalls of opposition legislators soon after the 2023 polls.

Read: Zimbabwe opposition pulls out of parliament over expulsion' saga

An activist, who claimed that he was secretary general of the main opposition Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC), was allowed to recall the legislators before the courts were used to block them from contesting their seats.

CCC leader Nelson Chamisa was subsequently forced to abandon the party as he protested that it had been hijacked by people pushing for the Zimbabwean leader to run for a third term.

Critics say the proposed constitutional changes will give President Mnangagwa the power to choose a successor so that he continues to be influential in Zimbabwe’s politics beyond his rule after failing in his bid to extend his rule beyond the two terms.

“(The amendments will) further compromise the independence of ZEC by allowing separate government bodies to perform roles directly linked to the commission’s duties,” the Zimbabwe Electoral Supervisory Network said.

“This (will) jeopardise the commission’s stewardship of elections, and ultimately erode citizens’ confidence and trust in electoral processes.”

During his reign, President Mnangagwa has faced persistent accusations that he manipulates the law to create a one-party state.

In 2021, he pushed through 27 constitutional amendments at one go and these included removing a clause that provided for the election of a vice president as a running mate.

It was seen as a way of eliminating Vice President Constantino Chiwenga from the succession race.

Retired Gen Chiwenga led the coup that toppled Mr Mugabe as army commander and is said to have presidential ambitions.

The constitutional amendments were also used to extend the tenure of senior judges, who are appointed by the president in consultation with the judicial service commission, instead of being subjected to public interviews as was the case before.

Observer missions said the judiciary played a key role in deciding the outcome of 2023 elections, which was rejected by his main rival, Mr Chamisa.

Read: Foreign observers say Zimbabwe poll not free and fair

The Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (CiZC) said the proposed constitutional amendments were meant to entrench authoritarianism.

“The proposed amendments to the Electoral Act will bring the integrity of Zimbabwe’s elections into further disrepute while perpetuating Zimbabwe’s legitimacy crisis,” CiZC said.

“The Coalition notes with utter disdain the continued mutilation of the constitution as part of efforts to entrench political power and authoritarianism.

“It is regrettable that instead of the constitution reflecting the will of the people of Zimbabwe, it has now become a tool for power hungry individuals to push their selfish interests.”

Lovemore Madhuku, a constitutional law expert, said a third term bid was always a bad idea given Zimbabwe’s history with Mr Mugabe.

“This idea of a third term is totally undemocratic and ought not to be pursued,” Professor Madhuku said.

“A person is better off in the first 10 years if they are lucky to be in office twice, but to just think of a third term would be very retrogressive in our country because we used to have a constitution that didn’t limit the number of terms that a person could serve as a president.”

Mr Mugabe ruled Zimbabwe from its independence from Britain in 1980 until his unceremonious removal from office.

President Manangagwa was his closest lieutenant until the last days of his rule where the two had a nasty fallout over succession politics.