Zambian opposition leader Elias Chipimo has come forward to call for a Malawian judge “imported” into the country by President Michael Sata for a “politically engineered” tribunal to return to his country until legal issues surrounding the matter are resolved internally.
Although the case concerning a 14 billion kwacha debt to the publicly owned Development Bank of Zambia (DBZ) has not yet gone through the appeals process, President Michael Sata established a judicial review tribunal to investigate the conduct of three judges involved in the decision – Judge Phillip Musonda of the Supreme Court, and Judges Charles Kajimanga and Nigel Mutuna of the High Court – over a controversial matter involving the editor of the Post newspaper Fred M’membe and the administration’s Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), Mutembo Nchito. Both M’membe and Nchito are seen as important political allies to the president, and the organization of President Sata’s tribunal has been criticized as a “a favour” to help them embezzle the 14 billion kwacha from the Zambian taxpayers.
M’membe and Nchito were found liable as directors of JCN Holdings for defaulting on a 14 billion kwacha (approx. $3 million) loan from DBZ, but the defendants cried foul to Justice Minister Sebastian Zulu. Zulu, who has spoken out forcefully against the judges’ decision, prompted Sata to suspend the three judges and consequently set up a tribunal headed by a Malawi High Court judge Lovemore Chikopa to investigate what they suggest is misconduct of the judiciary.
Two of the three judges – Mutuna and Kajimanga – applied for an order of judicial review of the President’s decision to set up a tribunal. In a last-minute surprise decision, High Court judge Flugence Chisanga granted the application, which resulted in an injunction against Sata’s handpicked tribunal from beginning their proceedings scheduled to start the following day.
Judge Chisanga has set May 30 to hear both parties but former Solicitor General Musa Mwenye (who was the former President of the Law Association of Zambia, calling into question the objectivity of the organization) has argued that the applications from the two judges be dismissed. According to Chipimo, because the ruling on the matter is not set until May 24, it means that the Malawian judge has no business in Zambia for the next six days but would continue drawing allowances from government coffers in order to stay in the country – a presence which of itself applies pressure on the judges deciding the process.
This has prompted Chipimo, leader of the National Restoration Party (NAREP), to demand that Chikopa returns to his country as a way of respecting the independence of the Zambian judiciary.
“The High Court has heard arguments from both the government and the applicants seeking relief from the Court following the granting of an Order to Stay the decision of the President to appoint a Tribunal,” said Chipimo. “The date for the delivery of the ruling has been set as 24 May (i.e. next Thursday). If he has not already left, the Tribunal Chairman should save the government money and return to Malawi pending the decision of the Court. Saving a daily allowance over a period of six days or longer (given that we do not know the outcome) will demonstrate a healthy and much needed sense of respect for the judiciary.”
Chipimo has also rebuffed Justice Minister Zulu’s comments published Thursday in The Post – an organization in the thick of the drama – which claimed that Zambia is suffering under a “dictatorship of the judiciary” and that this branch of government had no right to review President Sata’s decisions.
“Contrary to what the Minister of Justice had said following the granting of leave by the High Court for Judicial Review of the President’s appointment, the Courts in Zambia do have the power to review administrative action by a public official that is not carried out in accordance with law and procedure. This is a real test for the Judiciary and it will be interesting to see how the Courts hold up in the face of glaring and unacceptable attempts at intimidation,” he said. “Events are moving rapidly in Zambia. The application for Judicial Review of the decision by the President to appoint a tribunal to consider removal of two Judges of the High Court and a Judge of the Supreme Court has thrown this whole matter of the investigation of corruption in the judiciary into something of a tailspin. Let us not forget that the complainants that prompted the President’s action are his close political allies.”
An increasing number of opposition figures are reaching out internationally to report that the Zambian judiciary is allegedly under siege by the government, with a disturbing impact on major figures among the mass media.