/ 4 October 2013

Zambian lawyers ask court to axe acting chief justice

Michael Sata won't budge on his appointment of Zambia's acting chief justice.
Michael Sata won't budge on his appointment of Zambia's acting chief justice. (AFP)

Hundreds of lawyers in Zambia held a "dignified protest" outside the Lusaka magistrate's court last week to voice their objections to the continued stay in office of acting chief justice Phillis Lombe Chibesakunda.

The lawyers have petitioned the Lusaka High Court to declare her appointment last year null and void.

President Michael Sata appointed Chibesakunda (70) as acting chief justice in May last year, but Parliament failed to ratify her appointment on the grounds that she was older than the constitutionally prescribed age of 65.

However, Sata has refused to back down and maintains that Chibesakunda will continue to head the judiciary amid allegations that she is being retained for the convenience of the ruling Patriotic Front.

The protest was led by the president of the Law Association of Zambia, James Banda. "This is a dignified protest," he said. "[…] she must vacate the office of chief justice and we hope the court will agree with us."

Eight law firms are representing the country's lawyers in the petition, which cites attorney general Mumba Malila and Chibesakunda as first and second respondents respectively. The lawyers want the court to declare that the president cannot appoint any person who has attained or exceeded the age of 65 to the office of a judge of the high court or supreme court.

Chibesakunda reached retirement age in 2009, when she was a supreme court judge. Her contract was extended by the previous president, Rupiah Banda.

The Zambian law association argues that, although Banda had acted constitutionally in offering a new contract to Chibesakunda, it was illegal for her to be given another one by Sata after she had passed retirement age.

The Zambian Watchdog website reports that, because Chibesakunda had reached retirement age at the time of her appointment as a supreme court judge, Sata could have only extended her contract for that post – but not offered her a more senior position. The law association also argues that Chibesakunda's ­contract is illegal because a judge's contract can only be renewed once, the website said.

Sata has been under pressure to dismiss Chibesakunda following persistent accusations that he appointed her because of their personal relationship and her bias towards his ruling party.

The perception has been strengthened by a number of her recent judgments that overruled parliamentary elections and forced an unprecedented number of by-elections.

A number of opposition MPs have recently resigned to join the ruling party after being offered deputy ministerial jobs. The Constitution calls for a by-election in such cases, and a number of them have been held since 2011 when the Patriotic Front ousted Banda's Movement for Multi-party Democracy.

The ruling party had asked the courts to nullify more than 50 of the 150 parliamentary seats after winning the 2011 presidential polls, and about 20 of the seats have been subject to by-elections. However, not all the 20 by-elections were called because of nullification by the courts or as a result of resignations after some opposition MPs defected to the ruling party after being offered jobs by Sata.

Three more by-elections are on hold after the state appealed against a high court decision to allow opposition candidates to recontest the seats. The ruling party says the candidates should be banned from recontesting the seats because the court had nullified the by-elections on the grounds that the three MPS had used corruption to win their positions.

The opposition and civil society organisations have accused Sata of instigating by-elections in an effort to create a one-party state. But the president has defended his decision.