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Is Jacob Mudenda Abusing the Role of The Speaker of Parliament?



Nearly a month to the day, this blog made concerted arguments explaining how the most important result coming out of the 2023 General elections in Zimbabwe was that the main opposition party, Citizens Coalition for Change (CCC) had garnered enough seats in parliament to climb over the one-third threshold meaning that ZANU-PF would not have enough seats to control Parliament with an absolute majority of two-thirds. The same commentary suggested that the arrests of opposition leaders would likely follow. Although that was correct, that piece missed out on an entirely different trajectory: the Speaker of Parliament’s position turning into a sharp Assegai stabbing Zimbabwe’s already frail body of democracy another heavy blow.


Facts of the Sengezo Tshabangu Saga


In the weekend leading up to Monday 9 October 2023, rumours and social media started swirling around a letter written on 3 October by the by a man called Sengezo Tshabangu who claims to be the Interim-Secretary General of CCC. In this letter, he purportedly re-called 15 CCC MPs from parliament. To the shock (but we really shouldn’t have been shocked) the Speaker of Parliament, Jacob Mudenda took this letter as the authority and using the powers of his position actioned Tshabangu’s letter. Nelson Chamisa then publicized a letter that he sent to the Speaker on 11 September 2023 before the parliament sat for the first time where he told the Speaker that, “any communication or notification regarding any CCC Member of Parliament…will come from this office. He goes on to re-affirm this position saying that, “For the avoidance of any doubt, no other person is authorized to correspond or communicate with Parliament concerning CCC Member of Parliament.”

In effect, Mr. Mudenda ignored the letter from Mr. Chamisa and usurped it with Mr. Tshabangu’s letter. As Speaker of Parliament, Mr Mudenda has specific and important powers. As written in Section 129 (k) of the constitution,


“if the Member has ceased to belong to the political party of which he or she was a member when elected to Parliament and the political party concerned, by written notice to the Speaker or the President of the Senate, as the case may be, has declared that the Member has ceased to belong to it;”


Acting on the advice of the party concerned, the Speaker of Parliament can remove a Member of Parliament from Parliament. It is a seemingly innocuous power but Mr. Mudenda and ZANU PF have used it with the sole intention of creating a pathway to a two-thirds majority in Parliament, cause chaos in the opposition party and hopefully attaining seats for ZANU PF heavyweights who lost during the General election.


Speaker of Parliament


The role of Speaker of Parliament although widely known is not well understood. Why does the role exist and what do they do? To understand the former question, a trip into the history of the British parliamentary system is required. When the British Monarchy relinquished authoritative power to Parliament in the 14th century, it was felt that there was a need for someone to act as a go-between between the monarchy and the parliament. The Speaker of Parliament was ‘to speak for’ parliament, presenting their issues to the monarchy. With the introduction of the Prime Minister/President position, the role of the Speaker of Parliament has changed somewhat to include the duties of being an arbitrator of parliamentary debates, rule on the procedure, announcing the results of parliamentary votes, and disciplining members who violate the procedures of the Parliament. Through colonialism and further copy and pasting that occurred in subsequent constitutions, the Speaker’s role has carried on in our political ecosystem codified in Section 126 of the National Constitution and Sections 23-25 of the Privileges, Immunities and Powers of Parliament Act.


The Speaker of Parliament although ideally being a position reserved to be an arbitrator of democracy and the freedom of speech in Parliament is still inherently a political position. Speakers are voted from the party that has the majority in Parliament and that gives them important powers to decide how debates flow in Parliament, what is discussed and not discussed, and who gets to speak. Expectedly, parliamentary business occurs in a manner that serves the governing party. The reduction in democratic values and principles has seen the position of Speaker of Parliaments globally becoming more combative. Opposition members have staged walkouts from parliaments to register their disapproval of how parliaments and being conducted and it is also becoming more common for Speakers of Parliament to kick out opposition members of parliament during sessions. During former South African President Jacob Zuma’s administration, running battles occurred between opposition parties and the Speaker of Parliament, Baleka Mbete who was accused of protecting Jacob Zuma from questions asked on State Capture.


Mudenda’s actions against CCC are an extreme example of how the Speaker’s position can be used to not only advance and protect the interests of the President and governing body but also to reduce and minimize the role and power of opposition with Parliament. Unilaterally deciding to ignore the 11 September letter from the recognized opposition leader and using Tshabangu’s letter showed that ZANU PF with Mr. Mudenda taking a lead role was ready to force opposition on the defence once again by combining illegal acts enacted through legal channels, aptly defined as ‘lawfare’ which is the abuse of the law to target rivals. The recalled CCC MPs’ only immediate channel for relief is the courts which if the courts do decide that Mudenda’s actions were not either lawful, prompt, efficient, reasonable, proportionate, impartial & both substantively or procedurally fair, it will be a pyrrhic victory which provides the courts an air of impartiality which CCC has strongly argued to not be the case.


CCC Own Goal?


Some analysts have harshly criticized and have argued that this crisis is of their own doing because of the lack of structures and failure to maintain intra-party loyalty. Regarding the supposed lack of structures, this issue has been a pain point for outside observers because it is difficult to see and understand how the party can function well without a recognized constitution, internal party elections, and publicly known officeholders. That is because political parties in Zimbabwe within the discourse of organizational theory employ rigid hierarchical organizational structures. CCC since its inception has employed a network organizational structure. In network structures, leaders of an organization manage, coordinate, internal and external relationships leading to the broader organization being more decentralized, flexible, and flatter meaning there is a shorter chain of command. It is incorrect to say the party has no structures since it does have a known Presidium and recognized community/district leaders as evidenced in the previous elections. The network structure is just different from the common hierarchical structure.


The adoption of this network structure has been necessitated by CCC learning and trying to not repeat mistakes of regular splits, divide and conquer strategies from ZANU PF as shown with Mwonzora that bedeviled MDC and MDC-Tsvangirai parties. This structure is reminiscent of structures followed by guerilla fighters during armed struggles for independence in the 1960s and 70s. It is a prudent structure that works best when challenging incumbents who control by force large swathes of political and social life as is the case in Zimbabwe. However, the disadvantage of such a system is that it is easier for mis and dis-information from the incumbent government and its fois to appear as being valid. This is what is occurring with the Tshabangu saga where a disgruntled former member can cause confusion and panic in the public landscape discrediting CCC. The only counter to this strategy is for CCC to come out in force showing their allegiance and unity as occurred with the attendance of all leadership for Chamisa’s press conference in which he announced the ‘disengagement strategy.’


Disengage From Parliament and Council


“We are ordering all our deployees from parliament and local authorities to disengage from parliament and council until this issue is resolved… They have been disengaged not withdrawn,” proclaimed Nelson Chamisa as their response to the fraudulent recall of MPs. Practically, it means MPS and Councillors will not attend meetings or seatings at Parliament and Council. This is a continuation of the non-violent protest action that CCC has used since its inception. Largely symbolic, it is an action that is aimed at standing up against the action of the Speaker and more broadly de-legitimize the actions of the government. However, there is a hard deadline to this action. Elected officials cannot ‘disengage’ from parliament or council indefinitely. As stated in Section 129 (F) of the constitution,


“if, without leave from the Speaker or the President of the Senate, as the case may be, the Member is absent from the House of which he or she is a member for twenty-one consecutive days on which the House sits, and the House concerned resolves by a vote of at least one-half of its total membership that the seat should become vacant;”


That is why CCC have now come out to point out that this non-violent protest will last for fourteen days. It will be folly and a disservice for the protest to last longer as it will lead to CCC effectively giving up the seats, leading to unnecessary by-elections. ZANU PF in such a scenario could even take drastic action in declaring a local government state of emergency which will give them powers to run all CCC-led councils. The notorious Tshabangu who wrote another letter dated 11 October is a warning sign from ZANU PF showing their preparedness to remove CCC MPs who do not attend parliament indefinitely.


Authoritarian Regimes and Parliaments


Within autocratic regimes, Parliaments rather than being law-making institutions are turned into rubber-stamping organizations that serve the President. ZANU PF’s failure to acquire a two-thirds majority in Parliament with impending internal succession battles limits the political options that President Mnangagwa can take. That is why every effort will be made to overturn that result. In the interim, we will see a continued abuse of Statutory Instruments (SIs) being used as legislative orders from the President. We are currently on 154 SIs this year alone with many of those SIs usurping Parliament’s powers. The Speaker of Parliament is supposed to function as a communication cog between the presidium and Parliament but it is turning into merely a Presidential messenger role. This will be twinned with the selective acknowledgment of CCC’s existence when it best suits the government’s interests of becoming an authoritarian regime with an ineffectual opposition. Parliament will continue to be a key ground of battles between ZANU PF and CCC. Rather than fighting over laws and rules that govern the country, their fights will be on control and authority in Parliament which ultimately is an unfortunate, frustrating, rarely entertaining side show.


Sources


Government of Zimbabwe: 2013 Constitution of Zimbabwe

Government of Zimbabwe: Privileges, Immunities and Powers of Parliament Act

A B Mutiti 1974: Rhodesia and Her Four Discriminatory Constitutions.

SM Madue 2017: The Role of the Speakers of Parliament in Ensuring and Sustaining Executive Accountability The South African Experience

G Sharp 1978: The Politics of Non-Violent Action


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