Mtambanengwe’s Herculean task

a_five_judge_benchHARARE - Simpson Mtambanengwe is an affable fellow whose life has always been about seeking the truth. He has worked for over a decade in Namibia as a judge of that country's high court. (Pictured: A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court in Namibia, consisting of Chie

Namibians now regard him as one of their own, chiefly because of the way he has helped transform the Namibian justice system. He recently answered a call to return home and serve his country. He could not have come at a better time. Mtambanengwe, and other Zimbabwean lawyers such as the late Justice John Manyarara, have served the Namibian judiciary with great astuteness. It is no wonder that the Namibian justice system is among the most revered in the region.

Mtambanengwe’s appointment as the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC)chairperson early this year was greeted with huge sighs of relief given the history of the body’s previous chairpersons.

His role in Namibia and the many milestones that he registered are now part of history. Talking to the man, one gets a sense that he rises to a challenge. The soft spoken Mtambanengwe has a huge task on his hands as he begins the process of trying to deliver a free and fair election for the first time in many years.

In recent weeks he has been slowly making statements of intent in the media. At a media workshop organised by the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network (ZESN) last week in Kariba, his message was clear. “ZEC is not there to cause regime change. If regime change occurs, it is simply an incident of our work. We are here to deliver a free and fair election that is credible to all parties involved,” he said.

Upmost in his plan for elections is the overhaul of the voters roll which for many years has been in shambles and is often used as a tool for rigging elections. Also on his agenda is the issue of the Diaspora vote.

The Diaspora vote

Thousands of dead people are still regarded as voters while others who moved into the Diaspora are still counted as voters, even though they are not allowed to vote. Recently some electoral researchers claimed that there were a lot of people who are over 100 years old but are still listed as registered voters. However, due to the deterioration of the quality of life in Zimbabwe the many octogenarians still listed on the voters roll is cause for concern. Justice Mtambanengwe says his body is working on answering all of these questions.

“We are engaging stakeholders to see what can be done about the voters roll, particularly on the issue of dead people and those in the Diaspora,” he said. Mtambanengwe says he has started consultations with both the civic society, politicians, political parties and the larger civil society. However, although Mtambanengwe, a seasoned lawyer and member of the bench, has promised to make things right this time. He is under no illusions that the task at hand is a huge one.

Given the history of the country’s past elections, trying to deliver a free and fair election will be a miracle. President Robert Mugabe and his Zanu (PF) party have always resorted to violence and intimidation whenever the stakes are against them. It seems to be the last weapon in their armoury and Mtambanengwe’s greatest challenge. But is there anything that ZEC can do to stop this?

“There is need for ZEC to avoid rigging in the ballot, but to do that there must be improved elective acts that govern the behaviour of political parties during and after elections,” said Jealosy Mawarire, a Harare-based political commentator. “They must also have the stamina to resist pressure from politicians.”

Properly resourced

In addition, he said ZEC should be properly resourced so that it would be able to do its work in a free and fair environment. The ZEC has in the past operated on a shoestring budget and was only resourced when an election was around the corner. This, coupled with the prevailing environment, makes calling for an election next year a tough ask. Programmes such as the national healing process and the constitution making process have ensured that tension remains high in the country after the explosive June 2008 election. Mtambanengwe is, however, cognisant of these facts.

“The biggest challenge is financial resources to conduct elections. We have a very big task,” said Mutambanengwe in an interview with a state daily newspaper. However, although Mtambanengwe seems to be providing some sobriety on the

electoral issues, politicians from both Zanu (PF) and MDC are already saying that they are ready for an election next year.

Several benchmarks for a free and fair election are still to be done. The constitution making process is lagging behind the initially projected time frame by at least three months; parliament will need to amend the electoral laws to put in place proper political violence reporting structures during campaigning as well as speeding up the time of release of election results.

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