Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa is overhauling the Constitution barely seven years after it was adopted amid protests that he is reducing democratic space in the country.
President Mnangagwa is accused of trying to use changes to the Constitution to entrench his rule.
According to the amendments approved by Cabinet, the president will directly appoint his deputies, the prosecutor general, a public protector and control the promotion of judges.
The Constitution, adopted in 2013 as part of a power sharing deal between former president Robert Mugabe and late opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, provided for the direct election of vice presidents.
Judges were selected through a process that involved public interviews and this was seen as a progressive move in a country where the justice system is viewed as biased towards the ruling elite.
Although the amendments are yet to be approved by Parliament, the opposition is unlikely to block them as President Mnangagwa’s ruling Zanu-PF party enjoys a two-third majority.
Civil society groups and opposition parties have accused the ruling party of trying to tighten its grip on power and reduce the democratic space.
“Any amendments to the Constitution must seek to further entrench democracy and protect rights of citizens,” said Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition (CiZC), a group representing dozens of civil society groups.
“In our view, the proposed amendments seek to entrench the interests of individuals and dent the independence of an already captured judiciary,” CiZC added.
In 2013, Zimbabweans voted overwhelmingly for the new Constitution to replace a charter that was adopted when the country got its independence from Britain in 1980.
A decade earlier the late Mugabe, who had ruled Zimbabwe since independence, suffered his first electoral defeat in a referendum after his party tried to impose a Constitution it had crafted on its own.
However, seven years after the historic vote the government is yet to align the majority of the country’s laws to the new Constitution amid criticism that President Mnangagwa is not keen on reforms.
The 77-year-old ruler is also accused of trying to use the changes to the Constitution to ward off a potential challenge from one of his deputies, Constantino Chiwenga.
Retired General Chiwenga led the military coup that toppled the late Mugabe and is viewed as President Mnangagwa’s most likely successor.
In terms of the current Constitution, Gen Chiwenga and another vice president would be the president’s running mates in the 2023 presidential elections.
“The rationale for this provision was to introduce a nondisruptive succession plan while ensuring that in the event of a vice president taking over the office of president, they would have the people’s mandate,” the Law Society of Zimbabwe said.
“The effect of the proposed ammendment to section 94 means that vice presidents will no longer be elected but appointed by the president. This removes the transparence and democratic process sought to be achieved by the Constitution in relation to the assumption of these important offices,” the Law Society of Zimbabwe added.
In the run-up to the 2018 elections, President Mnangagwa said he was aware of a plot by some aspring Zanu PF MPs to impeach him before he completes his term.
If the president were impeached, his deputy would take over.
President Mnangagwa narrowly won the polls amid claims of vote rigging by his main rival Nelson Chamisa, of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change.
There have been reports of a major falling out between the president and Gen Chiwenga over alleged attempts to sideline the former army commander and a perceived lack of ethnic balance in the new government.
Prominent lawyer Advocate Thabani Mpofu said the proposed constitutional amendments were poorly thought out and showed that the government was not interested in reforms.
“The proposed amendments are a sovereign disgrace and show the lengths to which the government is prepared to go in undercutting the spirit of the Constitution,” Mr Mpofu said.
When he came into power on the back of the coup, President Mnangagwa promised that a “new kind of democracy” was unfolding in Zimbabwe.
However, two years on he is being accused of resorting to former president Mugabe’s tactics, which include regularly sending the army to crush protests against his policies.