HARARE: A court in Zimbabwe has ruled that the military takeover that led to Robert Mugabe’s dramatic ousting was legal, raising concerns on Saturday about the rule of law under the country’s new administration.
A minister in Mugabe’s last government also appeared in court on corruption charges after he was handcuffed and blindfolded, allegedly by soldiers, for eight days before being handed to police.
Triggering the end of Mugabe’s reign, army chiefs put military vehicles on the streets of Harare on November 14 and placed the 93-year-old leader under house arrest before he eventually resigned on Tuesday.
Many Zimbabweans have celebrated the end of Mugabe’s 37-year rule, but fear a new government under President Emmerson Mnangagwa could also be an authoritarian regime.
“Actions by the Zimbabwe Defence Forces to stop the usurping of power by those close to former president Robert Mugabe are constitutional,” state-run ZBC media reported the High Court as saying.
In an apparent reference to Mugabe’s wife Grace and her supporters, it said the court ruled on Friday that the takeover was “to ensure the non-elected individuals” did not exercise power.
Grace was alleged to have positioned herself to be Mugabe’s chosen successor, prompting the military to intervene and usher in its preferred candidate Mnangagwa.
‘Legalising a coup’?
“The court has endorsed the military’s interpretation that it is permissible and lawful for it to intervene in the affairs of the executive,” Zimbabwean legal expert Alex Magaisa wrote Saturday.
“This is a dangerous precedent which places the government at risk from the power wielded by the military.
“In the extreme form, it is tantamount to legalising a coup.”
On Saturday, Ignatius Chombo, the last finance minister under Mugabe’s government, appeared in court in Harare — the first Mugabe loyalist to face charges.
Chombo, seen as an ally of Grace Mugabe, told judges that armed men in uniform had detained and questioned him for several days at an unknown location where he was criticised for his role in government.
He was remanded in custody until Monday on fraud charges dating from 2004 – 2009, when he held a different ministerial role.
Mnangagwa, 75, was sworn in as president on Friday, vowing sweeping changes and new policies to attract foreign investment to revive the moribund economy.
He also used his inauguration speech to pay tribute to the increasingly frail Mugabe, describing him as one of the “founding fathers of our nation”.
Mnangagwa is a long-time veteran of the ruling ZANU-PF party and was until recently one of Mugabe’s closest allies.
Alongside another court ruling that Mugabe’s earlier sacking of Mnangagwa as vice president was illegal, Human Rights Watch’s regional director questioned the courts’ independence.
“Strange, captured judiciary?” Dewa Mavhinga wrote on Twitter.
Mnangagwa took the oath of office at the national sports stadium on the outskirts of Harare before thousands of cheering supporters, dignitaries and foreign diplomats.
The army has warned that criminals have been impersonating soldiers during the political turmoil to extort money from the public and it called on Zimbabweans to obey the law.
Mugabe had ruled since Zimbabwean independence in 1980, exercising almost total authority to crush any sign of dissent.
His iron grip on power ended on Tuesday when his resignation letter was delivered to a special parliamentary session where previously-loyal ZANU-PF lawmakers had convened to impeach him.
Mugabe is expected to remain in Zimbabwe and the government has promised to provide him and his family “maximum security and welfare”, according to state media.