Justice Chigumba the Iron Lady of Zimbabwean elections

by Elijah Chihota

On 30 July, Zimbabwe went to the polls which were tightly contested with a registered record of 23 Presidential hopefuls. Of these, there were two top horses, President Emmerson Mnangagwa (ZANU PF) and Nelson Chamisa of the MDC Alliance. The outcome saw President Mnangagwa romping to victory with 2 460 463 votes (50.8 percent) and Chamisa managed 2 147 436 votes (44.3 percent).

The question that naturally comes to mind is: who was steering the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) electoral ship? This was none other than ZEC Chairperson, Justice Priscilla Makanyara Chigumba, the Iron Lady of elections. Justice Chigumba has proved that despite being of the fairer sex she is made of sterner stuff. She took over the reins of ZEC six months before the elections following the departure of Justice Rita Makarau thus throwing her at the deeper end, but she managed to swim across the treacherous electoral tide against all odds.

The adage that, “When the going gets tough, the tough gets going”, aptly describes how Justice Chigumba threw her weight behind administering the first Biometric Voter Registration (BVR) system thus coming up with a new and less controversial voters’ roll. The exercise delivered some 5.6 million voters on the system all registered afresh to clear the alleged ghost voters.

In the midst of putting everything in place, then came the opposition MDC Alliance making petty demands such as requesting access to the Fidelity Printers and Refiners facility where the presidential ballot papers were printed and stored as well as closely monitoring the transportation thereof. They also demanded to be accorded coverage by both print and electronic media. As if that was not enough they demanded that ZEC should remove from its secretariat any employee who once worked in the country’s security sector and that ZANU PF should be stopped from using agricultural inputs and drought relief grain for “vote buying”. 

In her wise counsel, like the learned judge that she is, Justice Chigumba drew the MDC Alliance’s attention to Section 157(5) of the Constitution on the Electoral Law “After an election has been called, no change to the Electoral Law or to any other law relating to elections has effect for the purpose of that election”. Similarly, she reminded them that she had no jurisdiction over distribution of both agricultural inputs and drought relief grain.

Having realised that Justice Chigumba was not a push over, Chamisa and his allies started to complain that the voters’ roll was fraught with errors and, therefore, the elections should be postponed. But the Iron Lady shot straight back and said “The first thing to take note of is once the President has proclaimed the election date, nothing short of an earthquake can stop the election so whether candidates scrutinise the voters’ roll, whether they see any anomalies in it, whatever the anomalies are, whatever legal recourse they have, will not stop the election. I want that to be very clear that is the law”.

As if that was not enough before the Presidential election results were announced, Chamisa hatched another trick, this time demanding the release of results before the constitutionally mandated five days deadline. On 2 August, Justice Chigumba and her Commissioners announced the 2018 Presidential election results ahead of the 4 August cut off date. To prove her mettle, Justice Chigumba and her team worked tirelessly throughout the weekend uploading all the results on the ZEC website for the benefit of the public. What a feat? For newspaper lovers, The Herald of 5 August carried a 76-paged supplementary insert of the Presidential results for the benefit of those who wished to see the voting patterns- everything captured in black and white. This was the first time in Zimbabwe’s elections history that Local Authorities, National Assembly and Presidential election results were uploaded on time.

Even election observer missions from SADC, SADC Parliamentary Forum, African Union (AU), Common Market for East and Southern Africa (COMESA) and the Commonwealth praised ZEC for a sterling job and the adherence to timelines as well as adopting recommendations, which were made during the 2013 harmonised elections.

For those who doubted Justice Chigumba’s professionalism, her 2016 reversal of a two-week ban on protests in Harare that was issued by the police through Statutory Instrument 101A of 2016, is demonstrative of her balanced approach to her work. The ban came after opposition political parties under the banner of the National Electoral Reforms Agenda (NERA) had held a demonstration in central Harare in August 2016 which left a trail of destruction and loss of properties.

In November 2017, Justice Chigumba acquitted #ThisFlag founder, Evan Mawarire of charges of attempting to overthrow the Government and inciting others to commit public violence.

Justice Chigumba’s professional work ethic is underpinned by academic prowess. She obtained 15 points at “A” level at St Ignatius High School and went on to attain a Bachelor of Laws degree at Kings College, London in the United Kingdom. She was awarded the Women Human Rights Defender Award in 2011 by the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers Association (ZWLA). Other recipients of that award include Justice Makarau and former MDC-T Harare West legislator, Jessie Majome, among others.