Constitutional council “must be prudent”

If it is to survive, the Constitutional Council, Mozambique’s highest body in matters of constitutional and electoral law, “must be prudent in its decisions, it must reflect deeply on those decisions, and they must be well-grounded and of great quality”, warned the Council’s first chairperson, Rui Baltazar, on Tuesday.

Baltazar, who headed the Council from 2003 to 2009, was speaking at a celebration of his 80th birthday, organised in the Council’s offices.

“We must bear in mind that this body lies on the frontier between the political and he judicial”, he said. “So it is simultaneously something of a political body and something of a judicial body, and this makes it vulnerable to criticism and attacks”.

The Council’s decisions are examined by society in great detail, he added, “and so no decision should be taken without first reviewing it carefully, studying it down to the smallest detail, to make sure that nothing escapes that might deserve criticism”.

A constitutional court could be a source of stability, he told the current members of the Council – but “it could become a source of social and political instability, if mistakes are made, if you let it be contaminated by things that should not contaminate it. This means that, when you are on slippery ground, your great concern must always be respect for the law because this is always the best defence the Council can have, so that it becomes less vulnerable to criticism”.

There was always a suspicion that bodies such as the Constitutional Council might seek to usurp the power of the executive and become “government by judges”. That was a temptation that must be avoided, Baltazar said.

Baltazar, born in Maputo on 24 September 1933, has a long and distinguished legal and political career. Under the colonial regime, from 1959 to 1974. he defended Mozambican nationalists, clandestine members of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), in the courts.

Describing him as “a brilliant lawyer”, the current chairperson of the Constitutional Council, Hermenegildo Gamito, declared “you stood out in the defence of the ideals of freedom, equality and human dignity, defending many of your nationalist fellow countrymen in a hostile and dangerous environment”.

Under Mozambique’s first President, Samora Machel, Baltazar held the posts of Minister of Justice, and then Minister of Finance. From 1986 to 1990 he was Vice-Chancellor of the Eduardo Mondlane University, then the country’s largest university, and continued teaching at its Law Faculty until 1994.

From 1994 to 2001, he worked as a diplomat, serving as Mozambique’s ambassador to Sweden. When he was recalled to Maputo, he worked as an advisor to President Joaquim Chissano in 2002-2003.

The Constitutional Council was set up in November 2003, and Baltazar was appointed its chairperson. He was immediately confronted with electoral disputes arising from the 2003 local elections and then the 2004 general elections, which the Council was expected to deal with, despite its lack of staff, equipment or even office space of its own.

“In this very difficult and politically complex situation”, said Gamito, “the competence, knowledge and devotion of Rui Baltazar were called upon once again to serve the citizens and the country”.

Gamito added that Baltazar’s professional competence, independence, sense of ethics and capacity for teamwork “have indelibly marked our institution”. He set the master guidelines for the Council, “and either we stay within those guidelines or we will derail”.

During the ceremony, the Council’s “Rui Baltazar Library” was unveiled. Gamito said it contains around 2,500 books on law which are “reference points in constitutional, administrative and electoral law”.

“Nothing could please me more than to have my name associated with this library”, said Baltazar. “We started the Council from nothing, and we didn’t have any books at all”.

The Council has seven judges – five are chosen by the country’s parliament, the Assembly of the Republic (which means that three are chosen by the parliamentary group of the ruling Frelimo Party, and two by the main opposition party, Renamo), one is appointed by the regulatory body for judges, the Higher Council for the Judicial Magistracy, and the chairperson is appointed by the President of the Republic.

Despite the different political backgrounds of the judges, most of the recent rulings of the Council have been unanimous.

Baltazar said the judges “worked together for the national interest, forgetting ideological differences. And so the institution gained in prestige”. “We began as colleagues, but we ended up as friends”, he added.

Post published in: Africa News

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