HARARE – President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s backers always flatter him for his legal prowess and often refer to him as a “distinguished lawyer.”
Critics, however, opine that evidence available so far proves contrary.
They say Mnangagwa has lurched from one legal mistake to the other since assuming the high pressure job in November last year — from his decision to mess up ministerial appointments; his pronouncement in Davos that elections will be held in May when under the Constitution the earliest date for polling is July 23rd and the last date for polling is August 21st, or also giving an ultimatum to those who “externalised” money and assets when there does not seem to be a legal basis for it.
Mnangagwa took and passed the bar exam to become a lawyer but has never stepped foot into a courtroom to try a case, the Daily News can reveal.
Aged 75, he became Zimbabwe’s new president on November 24, succeeding Robert Mugabe, 94, the leader he had backed for decades before helping to oust him, initially studied law via correspondence while serving a 10-year prison sentence for his Crocodile Gang’s bombing of a train near Masvingo, then Fort Elizabeth during the liberation struggle.
After 10 years in jail, including three years in solitary confinement, he was released and deported back to Zambia, where he continued to study law.
He graduated from the University of Zambia (UNZA) with a law degree.
After graduating from UNZA Law School, he took the bar exam.
Mnangagwa completed his articles with a Lusaka-based law firm led by Enoch Dumbutshena, who would later become Zimbabwe’s first black judge.
While Mnangagwa has went through the rigours of law school — an endeavour where only the strong survive — he did not complete the journey after earning the title lawyer or attorney, by never trying a single case.
The Law Society of Zimbabwe (LSZ) — a self regulating independent professional body whose membership is drawn from all registered legal practitioners residing in Zimbabwe whether in private practice, in commerce or in public service — confirmed that Mnangagwa is registered on the roll of lawyers, but has never practiced as a lawyer.
“President Mnangagwa is a registered legal practitioner in terms of our legal records. He swore his oath of office at the High Court in 1982.
“But he never practiced, apart from doing his articles. That’s what I understand, that’s part of the records. He has been on the roll (of lawyers) since 1982. He did his articles under Dumbutshena in Zambia,” LSZ executive secretary Edward Mapara told the Daily News.
Mapara, who controls and manages the legal profession, including issues of governance, membership and leadership under the rule of LSZ president Misheck Hogwe and his deputy Thandaza Masiye-Moyo, also revealed that the toppled former president Mugabe was not registered with the LSZ.
Mugabe had a BSc, Bachelor of Laws, MSc and Master of Laws from the University of London’s external programme.
The two law degrees were earned while he was in prison and the MSc while leading the Zimbabwe government.
“From teaching, he was student of law, he graduated. He was not registered with the LSZ, he never did,” Mapara said.
Lovemore Madhuku, a lecturer in the Law Faculty at the University of Zimbabwe, said there are so many issues of lawyers who have never practiced but Mnangagwa is making a series of legal faux pas that are disconcerting.
“You don’t necessarily have to practice as a registered practitioner. Legal skills are required in every facet of life. It’s very common to never set a foot in a courtroom as a lawyer. It’s not uncommon, there are many lawyers like that. But he should show legal skills where he is.
“Mnangagwa’s weakness is that he rarely shows legal skills, like his failure to read the Constitution properly to the extent of not knowing how many ministers can be appointed outside Parliament, or also not knowing what is meant by externalisation.
“He is associated with many decisions that show lack of legal depth,” the constitutional law expert said.
“The problem is not that he never practiced, but that he is not showing legal brilliance.”
Tendai Biti, a veteran lawyer and senior partner at Biti Law, said having a legal qualification doesn’t make Mnangagwa a good lawyer.
He cited a series of strange decisions by Mnangagwa, but was quick to say they had nothing to do with his lack of courtroom experience.
“It’s a reflection of lack of sharpness. There are lawyers who have never set foot in a court room but who won’t make the elementary mistakes that he is doing. His structural defect is that he is not sharp. Compare him with Mugabe, he is not sharp,” Biti said.
He said Mnangagwa has lurched from one legal mistake to the other. The President’s ministerial line up had to be revised so that he does not break the constitutional stipulation of having only five non-MPS as ministers or deputy ministers.
“So it’s not only ministers, but his failure to appoint a Defence minister, his pronouncement in Davos that elections will be held in May when under the Constitution the earliest date for polling is July 23rd and the last date for polling is August 21st, or also not knowing what is meant by externalisation.”
Mnangagwa has threatened to prosecute alleged looters who fail to return externalised funds by March 19.
Biti said Mnangagwa is misreading the law and attempting to criminalise externalisation.
The former Finance minister said under Exchange Control Regulations, externalisation of US dollars, Rands or other currencies under the basket of currencies does not constitute a crime because since 2009, all foreign currencies became legal tender of this country.
“So the US dollar is legal tender, it is no longer foreign currency, so how does externalising it become illegal?” Biti asked rhetorically.
“So even though he is a lawyer, he is legally illiterate.” Biti said.