Worth Fighting for

Zimbabwean lawyer Lydia Zigomo is taking a stand against President Mugabe’s corrupt regime, despite the threat of violent repercussions. Fiona Callister reports


Zigomo: speaking before the elections

There is a lot of bellyaching in the City at the moment. Even if they are still managing to fill their days, there’s a good chance that the partners’ share of the profits will mean that Christmas in Barbados might have to be foresaken.

Lydia Zigomo knows of those pressures. She used to have a thriving commercial law practice, but has diversified into other areas because there are not many deals around now.

However, aside from these usual worries, her main concern is whether she should expect a beating from government-sanctioned thugs any day soon. In Zimbabwe, where Zigomo works, the status of lawyers is now blurred with that of their clients and those representing opposition sympathisers can find themselves the subject of vicious attacks at the hand of ruling party Zanu PF’s supporters.

In recent weeks, a lawyer was beaten up for daring to represent a supporter of opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Police have turned a blind eye when lawyers are attacked under their noses in police cells while visiting clients. Anonymous threats along the ‘we know where you live’ line are regularly received.

Do you remember the old Ian Dury song Reasons to be Cheerful? Hum it to yourself and thank God or your lucky stars that you are not destined for a traineeship in Harare.

Zigomo took part in a delegation from the Zimbabwean Crisis Group, which visited London in February to lobby both the Commonwealth and the European Union to take action against President Mugabe. Crisis represents 250 Zimbabwean civil societies, including Zigomo’s Women Lawyers Association. Traditionally, the societies have wielded a lot of power in nudging government policy along. But now they, as everyone else who opposes Mugabe’s belligerence, are just shouting into the wind.

We sit chatting in a room belonging to the charity Action for Southern Africa, which is sponsoring the delegation’s visit. Zigomo is relaxed and talkative, relating the situation in her home country as if she had merely watched a documentary on it.

At the end of our chat, when she is waiting for the photographer, Zigomo asks me whether her hair looks all right, before casually saying: “After this, there’ll probably be people at the airport waiting to take me away.”

‘After this there will probably be people at the airport waiting to take me away’ – Lydia Zigomo, Zimbabwean lawyer

Misled by her smile and lighthearted manner, I laugh briefly before realising that she isn’t joking. While Lawyer 2B may not be widely read in Harare, she is still taking a risk by being so open with me. It is humbling that an interview that for me is essentially about having something interesting to fill a page with, for her could be a death wish.

“Those who are in private practice get targeted,” she explains. “You’re now seen as your client.

For those lawyers who are representing people who have been illegally evicted, or those who have been victims of political violence, they are lumped together with their clients and that is not safe because of the threats of violence against the clients.”

The trouble stemmed from Mugabe’s desperation to cling on to power at any cost in March’s general election. While he held on to power in the 2000 elections, dissatisfaction over his tardy and corrupt land redistribution policy threatened to hand power to the MDC. So as any good dictator would, Mugabe merely changed the law to help his cause.

Not only has Mugabe changed the law, he has also changed the judiciary, drafting in his Zanu PF supporters to sit on the bench. Ironically though, Zigomo believes this move has backfired on the president. “Even for the pro-government judiciary, the law remains the law and some of the judges that have moved in are pretty good judges.”

She says that a recent judgment from a pro-Zanu PF judge ruled that holding both the local mayoral and general elections together with no explanation as to how that would affect the voter was unconstitutional – not a judgment that the government was expecting at all. However, this is also a judgment that the government completely ignored, as it has with other judgments it did not like.

Zigomo says that lawyers used to have a very analytical and academic view of the law. Now the situation means that lawyers have to be much more aware of the practical implications of legislation – even if a law is copied verbatim from the UK statute book, on the ground in Zimbabwe it will work in a very different way.

And lawyers have had to drop their flowery speech patterns. Now, saying off the cuff that the president would be “mad” to do something, could end up in a very nasty encounter.

“We have had to become much more like ‘street lawyers’, if I can borrow from John Grisham,” smiles Zigomo. “If you’re seen as too inflammatory and too extreme then you are opening yourself up to personal danger.”

She says that there have also been a lot of resignations from the bench. Once judges have made a ruling that goes against the government, rather than take the aftermath they will resign their position.

Zigomo says that it is time for lawyers to unite for change in the country, in the same way that the media did when four journalists from Harare’s independent The Daily News were detained last August. “We need the situation in Zimbabwe that if a lawyer loses touch with the Law Society then the society can alert international concern,” she says.

As for sanctions, she is in two minds. “Sanctions should have been discussed long ago. People kept going around and around and around and continued to sit on the fence when it came to sanctions. For Crisis this is now not the most important issue because even if you impose sanctions [on Mugabe] now, the impact will be felt in the mid to long term. The issue for us is whether the conditions are conducive to having some form of free and fair elections.”

I have spoken to many lawyers in the past who love the law. Not as a means to make money or as a business tool, but like some love cryptic crosswords or taking engines apart. Zigomo seems to mourn not only the impact that the crumbling rule of law is having on her country, but the way the law is being twisted and used. As if Mugabe was going around slashing paintings or bulldozing flower beds, she mourns the loss of something pure and beautiful.

Zigomo is a bright woman, so has she never thought of leaving? “I have,” she says sadly. “But I love my country and I think there is hope for it. It is a beautiful country with beautiful people.”

Judicial Revolt

The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute has expressed its “dismay” at the Zimbabwe government’s “disregard for the rule of law”, after another senior judge resigned at the start of March. Justice Ebrahim is the latest in a line of judges to quit the bench after the government forced chief justice Anthony Gubbay into early retirement last year for declaring that President Mugabe’s land seizure programme was illegal. Ebrahim announced his resignation after Mugabe used his powers to overturn a Supreme Court ruling that the government’s General Laws Amendment Act had been enacted illegally. In March last year, the IBA’s Human Rights Institute sent a delegation of international judges and lawyers to Zimbabwean on a fact-finding mission. The report made seven recommendations and claimed to have received “important assurances” from Zimbabwe officials – including Mugabe – that they would be taken into account. But the IBA has since condemned the government’s “complete failure to comply with the assurances”. High Court judge Ben Hlatshwayo extended voting during the recent presidential elections to a third day after huge queues built up at polling stations. But the High Court threw out requests for a fourth day, despite widespread claims that long delays had obstructed voting. Controversially, Robert Mugabe has won a second six-year term as president.