Citizens’ political rights violated under the guise of Covid-19 control

Source: Citizens’ political rights violated under the guise of Covid-19 control – #Asakhe – CITE

THE plight of the people of Binga North in Matabeleland North, who have over the years lamented marginalisation by the Zimbabwean government, has been worsened by the blatant violation of their political rights, in particular the right to parliamentary representation which they no longer enjoy.

Binga North, just like some constituencies in the country has endured eight solid months without parliamentary representation following the recalling of the area’s legislator, Prince Dubeko Sibanda by his former political party, MDC-T in October 2020, which accused him of joining the rival MDC Alliance.

Since the March 31, 2020, Supreme Court ruling which nullified the Nelson Chamisa presidency of the mainstream MDC, the rival faction then led by Thokozani Khupe has been recalling MPs and councillors believed to be loyal to Chamisa.

The Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) only managed to fill in vacancies for the proportional representation legislators while for those that are to be directly elected and for the councillors are yet to be filled in.

According to the country’s constitution, a by-election should be held within 90 days in the event of a vacancy in the National assembly, meaning to say by January this year, the Binga North parliamentary seat and others elsewhere should have been filled.

This has, however, not happened and is a direct violation of Section 67 of the Zimbabwean Constitution which provides for a cocktail of political rights to be freely enjoyed by citizens in their country.

Section 67 (1) says: “Every Zimbabwean citizen has the right to free, fair and regular elections for any elective public office established in terms of this Constitution or any other law; and to make political choices freely.”

The same section of the supreme law further provides for the right to vote in all elections and referendums as well as the citizens’ rights to stand for election for public office and, if elected, to hold such office.

On October 3, last year, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, who doubles as the Minister of Health and Child Care amended Statutory Instrument 225A of 2020, Public Health Covid-19 Prevention, Containment and Treatment)(Amendment) Regulations, 2020 (No 4), to allow for suspension of the by-elections.

“Pursuant to subsection (2), the holding of any by-election to fill a casual vacancy in Parliament or in a local authority is for the duration of the period of the declaration of Covid-19 as a formidable epidemic disease, suspended, and if such vacancy occurred while such declaration is in force, no part of the period from the date of such vacancy to the date of the end of the declaration shall be counted for the purposes of section 158(3) of the Constitution,” says the IS in part.

The ban came at a time when the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) was already preparing for the by-elections which had been scheduled for December last year.

Despite court challenges to the suspension of by-elections, no ruling has been made on the matter.

Villagers in Binga North told CITE they were concerned by the continued violation of their right to parliamentary representation by the President Emmerson Mnangagwa-led administration, something which they said was aggravating their marginalisation.

Stretching over 15 wards, Binga North, covers Sianzyundu, Siachilaba, Simatelele, Manjolo, Muchesu, Lubu, Binga centre, Sikalenke, Sinansenkwe, Sinaboma, Sinampande Nagankala, Sinabusenka, Chunga and other areas.

“We have a serious problem indeed as people of Binga North because we no longer have a representative in the National Assembly,” said Diamond Muleya of Ward 9 in Sianzyundu.

“What is disturbing us the most, is that it has taken a very long time for by-elections to take place. That is our major worry now. It is difficult now to operate without an MP. When it comes to food distribution, for example, some villagers are now neglected as a result of the politicisation of aid. There is no one now to arise and challenge that; it is tough.”

Muleya further said: “If Zimbabwe was a free country, we could have long demonstrated against this to show the government that we are not at all amused by this but if we are to take that route, we risk being gunned down or arrested. We have a serious challenge.”

Muleya said it was unfortunate that there was nothing much they could do as citizens to regain their parliamentary representation.

“This government has never at any time valued us as Binga people,” bemoaned Muleya.

“It doesn’t care about us and the same applies to us here in Binga, we don’t want it.”

Another villager, Matthias Mwinde of Ward 12, Muchesu in Zuka village, said they were pained by their scenario.

“Our issue is a painful one,” Mwinde told CITE.

“We are like kids whose mother has been devoured by wild animals. We do not know what route to take now as it seems as if all avenues have been shut for us. We are like a group of people who are just lost. We are so much pained by this issue.”

He noted that they were concerned that their rights were being disregarded by the powers-that-be.

“This clearly shows that the government is taking us for granted and has nothing to do with us as people of Binga North,” he decried.

“We are so pained that we no longer get to know about issues discussed in Parliament and we don’t know what would become of us should it remain like this. We don’t know who to tell or go to whenever there are burning issues that require attention. We are so much pained by this issue.”

The country’s human rights watchdog, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) also questioned the suspension of the by-elections, accusing the government of double standards its decision while calling on ZEC to prove its independence on electoral matters.

“The ZHRC also notes that the government (through Parliament) allowed the conducting of the Public consultations for the Constitutional Amendment Bill (No 2), which were carried out across all provinces during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic with more strict lockdown measures in June 2020,” said the ZHRC.

“If Covid-19 precautionary measures could be practised in such an environment, the ZHRC is of the view that by-elections could in the same spirit, proceed as they are polling station-based.”

Sibanda, the recalled Binga North lawmaker also said while the absence of an MP in the area was a violation of citizens’ rights, it was also affecting their day to day living.

“As much as the duties of a Member of Parliament are legislative, representative and oversight, in terms of the constituency itself there are day to day issues that happen in the constituency which affect communities, not an individual but as a whole, collective and which things are from time to time would want that oversight role of the Member of Parliament to be done at a constituency level and not at a national level,” said Sibanda.

“I will give you an example of some of the activities that have happened so far is that we have seen food distribution being abused in certain wards and we are talking about the food that is actually coming from the social welfare, which is a government department. It is the duty of the Member of Parliament to oversee that kind of thing. We have seen also complaints about the slow pace at which identity documents are being processed in the district. We have experienced also a serious shortage of electricity, serious shortage of water. Fishermen in my constituency have experienced a hike in tariffs that they are supposed to pay to a government department. My hands are tied.”

He added that if the government was indeed convinced that the existing parliamentary vacancies were lawfully created, they should also lawfully call for the filling in terms of the law.

“In terms of the law it should have been done in 90 days,” he explained.

“Those 90 days have long expired. It is an illegality that continues to happen each and every day and apparently we do not seem to be doing anything about it. I am however aware that there is a case whose judgement was reserved in the High Court, where someone had applied, I think it was an organisation, I think it was ERC that had applied to the Court to say that ZEC is wrong by suspending the holding of elections. We are waiting for that judgment.”

Sibanda said while the rights of voters in the constituency and others were being trampled upon in the current circumstances, his right to contest in the polls was also being violated by the government of the day.

“Basically, that right to be represented is a political right and that right is being violated by the failure to hold elections according to the Constitution,” said Sibanda.

“I also have my right to contest again in that election at least within 90 days and that right is continuously being violated. It is not only my right but the right of others as well who would want to contest in that election.”

Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights (MIHR) coordinator, Khumbulani Maphosa, said the recall of MPs goes beyond affecting the enjoyment of political rights by citizens.

“It affects all the rights that are fulfilled and protected through democratic kind of representative democracy,” said Maphosa.

“This does not affect Binga North alone. It affects all communities that have legislators and councillors that were recalled. People have a right to development at any level. The Constitution of Zimbabwe also grants us the freedom of expression and that expression, we express it through our representative leaders also. Now if you no longer have a representative leader because of recalls then that means your right is being violated.”

He, however, said it was unfair to apportion all the blame on the government.

“I think it’s unfair to only blame the government for it because the first people that violated their rights is the political party of which the MP belongs to because when that political party recalled the MP, did they consult the locals? They did not. Did they look at the issue of by-elections, to say, will the by-elections be held in the Covid-19 environment? It is their political party that violated their rights first.”

He said the government’s fault lies in the failure to facilitate the holding of by-elections.

“But the government will tell you that they are doing it for national safety because of Covid since gatherings are banned; we all see it,” he said.

“That political party is the one which has to be blamed more because they had other means of resolving the issue. If they had a disagreement with Sibanda they could have solved that in other ways without recalling.

He said it was regrettable that: “For every measure that is there, it is the ordinary citizen that suffers.”

“That’s the truth of the matter and unfortunately as long as by-elections remain banned the only thing that could be the way forward is for the people to lobby the political party that they voted for in 2018 to reinstate the recalled,” he added.

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