CHIEF Justice (CJ) Godfrey Chidyausiku’s impending exit from the helm of Zimbabwe’s judiciary next month is as controversial as his assumption of that office in 2001 at the height of the chaotic and often violent land reform that killed commercial agriculture and rendered farm land dead capital.
BY PAIDAMOYO MUZULU
Chidyausiku’s 16-year reign has had its highs and lows with far-reaching consequences on the legal landscape.
But it seems he has no regrets over the way he found himself suddenly at the apex of Zimbabwe’s justice system and apparently believes his imprint on the judiciary has been positive.
Chidyausiku thinks his legacy will be anchored on the land reform and gender balance on the bench.
A surprise appointment given Chidyausiku, then Judge President, got the nod ahead of senior jurists then in the Supreme Court such as the late highly-respected Wilson Sandura to succeed Anthony Gubbay, who hand been hounded out of office by President Robert Mugabe’s regime.
Before that promotion, Chidyausiku had handed the infamous Mhuriro ruling, which reversed Gubbay’s Supreme Court order that authorised eviction of land invaders.
In his final address to the judiciary last week, Chidyausiku reflected on the period with apparent nostalgia.
“I stood firm because I believed in the correctness of our decisions at law. My stance on constitutionalism then and today, as I leave the bench, has not changed. Given the same situation, I would today make the same decisions that I made in 2001 on the land issue because I believe that they are correct at law,” he said.
Chidyausiku also said his legacy would also be defined by the appointment of female judges to superior courts.
During his tenure, he oversaw the appointment of six female judges to the Supreme Court.
It must also be remembered that Chidyausiku, prior to joining the bench, had served as a deputy minister in Mugabe’s early independence administration, before he went on to become Attorney-General and the chairperson of the Constitutional Commission that was behind a rejected draft in 2000.
So, basically, he was one of them.
However, analysts say Chidyausiku would go down in the annals of history as the CJ who was beholden to the Executive and destroyed permanent employees’ job security.
Commentator, Ricky Mukonza says Chidyausiku’s reign is littered with judgments that have been friendly to the Executive.
“I think Chidyausiku has not demonstrated the kind of character that must go with that office. He has been found wanting in a number of situations and has shown leniency towards the Executive. He does not inspire confidence that is necessary for the judiciary to be seen to be independent,” he said.
Chidyausiku will also be remembered for having handed down the infamous Jealousy Mawarire judgment that paved the way for 2013 elections without adequate electoral reforms demanded by the opposition and the Zuva Petroleum ruling in July 2015 that legalised termination of permanent employees’ contracts on three months’ notice.
The Zuva judgment came as the Executive had started toying around with a labour flexibility policy.
A legal analyst, Dewa Mavhinga, chipped in: “Chidyausiku was viewed as malleable and open to Zanu PF and government influence given his past close links to the ruling party.”
Chidyausiku, in 1980, was elected into the first post-independence Parliament on a Zanu PF ticket and immediately appointed Local Government deputy minister by Mugabe.
As Attorney-General, he was as powerful as a Cabinet minister, as he also oversaw prosecutions.
This position also allowed him to sit as an ex-officio Member of Parliament and Cabinet besides being chief government legal adviser.
Lawyer and opposition People’s Democratic Party spokesman Jacob Mafume said Chidyausiku was a brilliant jurist, but goes into retirement with blemishes.
“He is an intelligent lawyer, very clever human being and colourful. The land issue will always mark his legacy, but as he rides off in the sunset, there will be a few critical wheels missing off his wagon, like the media suffered under his court,” he said.
Chidyausiku used the “dirty hands principle”, which resulted in the closure of the then largest privately-owned daily newspaper, The Daily News, in 2003, sending hundreds of journalists and support staff into the streets.
As chairman of the Constitutional Commission in the late 90s, Chidyausiku presided over Mugabe’s first major electoral defeat since independence.
The commission had two “moments of weaknesses” that put a large bloat on Chidyausiku’s individual reputation, according to analysts.
The commission allowed Mugabe to put changes to the final document after it had been approved by all commissioners to go to a referendum.
Needless to say, the draft constitution was eventually rejected at the referendum.
Chidyausiku, during the commission’s tenure, was involved in a wrangle with a fellow commissioner, which he himself labelled “a moment of weakness”.
Chidyausiku, in his speech, acknowledged that history would judge his tenure and he hoped it would be kind. On that question, the jury is still out.