Bribery claims haunt Chigumba

HARARE - Way back in the year Before Christ, the famous Roman General Julius Ceasar decided to divorce his second wife Pompeia on the basis of suspicion.

Ceasar famously said any wife of his must be above suspicion.

It is an assertion that has transcended through time and cuts across all manner of relationships and professions.

The new Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (Zec) chairperson Priscilla Chigumba is being haunted by suspicion over an unproven allegation raised by former Chief Justice Godfrey Chidyausiku in 2016.

At the time, Chidyausiku claimed Chigumba had a case to answer on allegations that she tried to solicit a $20 000 bribe to throw out a civil case that was before her in 2013.

She will have to fight with her back against the wall to prove that Chidyausiku’s assertions during public interview for a place on the bench of the Supreme Court, is just another example in which the law remains on her side until a time she is proven guilty.

Bible in hand, the High Court judge took oath of office on Thursday to effectively take over from Rita Makarau whose surprise resignation last year is still shrouded in mystery.

Chigumba served as a resident magistrate and provincial magistrate before being seconded to work as a senior professional research assistant in the Office of the Chief Justice before she was sworn in as Judge of the High Court on December 20, 2011.

Like the predecessor before her, Chigumba has an affectionate smile but she will need more than charm as she assumes an office marred with accusations of tilting the electoral field in favour of Zanu PF.

Constitutional law expert and Kent University Law lecturer, Alex Magaisa, said the allegations of bribery will probably haunt Chigumba into her new job unless there is a definite public clearance.

When Chidyausiku made the allegations, Chigumba protested vehemently.

It is not clear whether she was cleared, although her appointment would suggest that she was.

“If she was cleared of the allegations, that clearance did not receive sufficient publicity to clear her name in the court of public opinion. In any event, the allegations seem to have cost her promotion to the Supreme Court,” said Magaisa.

“If there is any semblance of truth in the allegations, then it casts doubt on her credibility for the job as she would appear to be corruptible. However, if she was cleared of the allegations, and it is possible that it may have been a smear campaign, then this needs to be made clear in order to give confidence to all political actors and the electorate…An allegation alone is not enough to disqualify her from holding the Zec chair.”

Speaking after taking oath of office on Thursday, Chigumba said she was unfazed by the mystery which still surrounds her predecessors’ abrupt and surprise resignation, vowing she will dutifully discharge her duties without fear or favour.

Makarau has declined to shed light on whether she was forced to resign or she jumped before she was pushed.

“I can never be daunted when the law is certain because my mandate is very clear, it’s just to administer the law; to apply the law which exists at this point in time and as a judge I do that on a daily basis so there is nothing daunting,” Chigumba boldly claimed, adding she will carry out her mandate without any interference as provided for in the Constitution of Zimbabwe and other electoral laws.

“It is a great honour and privilege to be asked to serve one’s country in this capacity as the chairperson of Zec and I promise the Zimbabwean people that I will deliver a free, fair and credible election.”

The High Court judge said she will treat all stakeholders in a fair manner and will thrive to maintain an open door policy.

“Certainly yes we will look into those issues,” Chigumba said of accusations of bias towards Zanu PF leveled against the commission adding “because it is our intention to deliver a credible election.”

“…My mandate is just to be an umpire and to ensure that there is fairness in the process of Zimbabweans electing their leaders so it’s a very clear mandate and I intend to discharge it fully.”

Zimbabwe will hold elections in four to seven months, and providing a credible voters’ roll will be Chigumba first port of call.

She will also have to deal with rising cases of voter registration slip’s serial number intimidation which is threatening to smear the credibility of the biometric voter registration exercise.

Electoral watchdog, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (Zesn), has urged Chigumba to strive to safeguard and protect the independence of Zec by ensuring that principles of good electoral management such as transparency, integrity, professionalism, competence and fairness are upheld.

“Furthermore, the network calls upon the new Zec chairperson to ensure that provisions of the Electoral Act that guarantee freeness and fairness of electoral processes are respected by all electoral stakeholders in particular political parties.

“For instance, Zec together with other institutions supporting democracy such as the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and the Zimbabwe Republic Police must bring to account individuals engaging in the illegal practice of soliciting for voter registration slips’ serial numbers and intimidating voters,” Zesn said.

The Election Resource Centre (ERC) said Chigumba was faced with a huge task to ensure the delivery of free, fair and credible elections as promised by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government.

“The impending elections present a possible turning point in Zimbabwe’s political trajectory. While every election is a watershed moment in a country’s history, this particular election comes in the wake of extensive calls for electoral reforms, chief among them independence of Zec, right to vote, electoral disputes mechanisms, deterrence of election related violence and intimidation,” said ERC director Tawanda Chimhini.

“International standards dictate that every Election Management Body ensures the legitimacy and credibility of the processes for which it is responsible and this can be made possible by adhering to fundamental guiding principles which include; independence, impartiality, integrity, transparency, efficiency, professionalism and service-mindedness.”

While lawyer and human rights activist, David Coltart, applauded the appointment of woman to important positions, he said women should not just be appointed because they are women.

Coltart said two of the three appointments at Zec were unquestionably good “but sadly the appointment of Chigumba was not because of the unresolved corruption allegation levelled against her.”

Former deputy minister of Justice who is the MDC spokesperson Obert Gutu, however, lauded Chigumba’s appointment saying the jurist was an astute legal mind with a strong sense of independence and integrity.

He said the MDC was confident that if she is given the proper latitude to perform her duties, she will excel.

“The main challenge that we have in Zimbabwe is that there are always some shadowy but extremely powerful political forces behind the scenes that invariably dictate the manner in which our elections are conducted,” he opined.

“We expect Justice Chigumba to stand her ground fearlessly and authoritatively. She mustn’t be a pushover. We know that there will be sinister and scandalous political forces behind the scenes who will relentlessly seek to dictate and direct the manner in which Zec conducts its operations. Justice Chigumba must rise to the occasion and perform her duties with honour and integrity. We will be watching her closely.”

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