Zimbabwe’s High Court on Saturday ruled that President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s controversial extension of tenure of the country’s top judge is illegal.
Mnangagwa announced last week that he had extended Luke Malaba’s term of office by five years, just hours before the Chief Justice was to due to retire, a move seen as aimed at consolidating the president’s power.
Three high court judges sat through Friday night as lawyers argued over the legality of the extension.
The court ruled on Saturday that “Malaba ceased being a judge and Chief Justice of Zimbabwe at 0000hrs on 15 May 2021.”
Malaba has been accused of favouring Mnangagwa’s administration. He dismissed opposition leader Nelson Chamisa’s presidential election petition following the 2018 vote.
Decrying the ruling as “baseless and meaningless”, the government said the case was “a typical case of judicial overreach”.
A ministry of justice and parliamentary affairs statement vowed to file an appeal, alleging that the judiciary “has been captured by foreign forces”.
The ministry said it had sought the recusal of one of the “clearly conflicted” Justices. “The judiciary should know where it ends,” it added.
Prior to seeking to extend the chief justice’s tenure, the president signed into law a controversial constitutional amendment that changed provisions relating to the appointment of judges.
A litany of petitions are before the courts challenging the amendment which was railroaded through parliament and signed into law by Mnangagwa two weeks ago.
The president’s critics say it was part of a plan to keep a malleable judiciary fronted by Malaba.
They fear that changes to the constitution, adopted in 2013, will undermine the independence of the judiciary and consolidate Mnangagwa’s hold on power ahead of the next presidential election in 2023.
“Remarkable victory in defence of the Constitution!” Zimbabwe human rights lawyer Doug Coltart tweeted in the wake of the ruling.
Outspoken Zimbabwean author Tsitsi Dangarembga lauded it as a display of “courage and integrity” by Justice Happias Zhou, one of the judges targeted in the backlash.
“God bless and protect the judge,” she tweeted.
Mnangagwa took over after longtime ruler Robert Mugabe was forced to resign by the military in November 2017.