From Chabwela Chinondo in Lusaka, TZ Business News.
The Constitutional Court of Zambia has upheld a plea submitted by the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) demanding that Cabinet Ministers in the pre-election Government refund millions of Kwacha spent illegally after dissolution of the Cabinet in May, 2016.
Some 23 cabinet ministers and an equal number of Deputy Ministers continued to draw Government salaries after the cabinet was dissolved, contrary to legal provisions in Zambia the party complained in court, demanding all the salaries received after May be returned to Government coffers.
The Constitutional Court upheld the plea amid election campaigns this August, 2016 and ordered the ministers to immediately vacate their positions and pay back three-months salaries they had received since May when Parliament was dissolved. But the court order has apparently been overshadowed by campaigns for the general elections which were held on Thursday, August 11, 2016, where some of the ministers have also been accused of using government money for their campaigns.
The court said it was illegal for cabinet members to continue drawing salaries and allowances because their mandate was ended with the dissolution of parliament. President Edgar Lungu dissolved parliament on May 11, 2016, marking the beginning of campaigns ahead of the general elections and a national referendum this mid-August, 2016.
The cabinet Ministers, with his backing, refused to vacate their posts on claims that the new constitution allows them to stay on until a new cabinet is appointed by the president elect.
The Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) and the leading opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) took the matter to court where they asked for the eviction of the ministers from their positions.
President of the constitutional court Hildah Chibomba who delivered the judgement on Monday, August 8, 2016, together with four other judges ruled that President Lungu was wrong to maintain the ministers in office after dissolution of Parliament.
The court also found that it was illegal to continue having deputy ministers because the new constitution which was enacted in January this year scraped the posts.
The judgement which cannot be appealed came barely hours before the crucial elections where Lungu faced Hakainde Hichilema of the UPND. The elections also saw Zambians vote in a referendum on whether to include the Bill of Rights in the constitution.
Lungu has ruled Zambia from January 2015 after the death of Michael Sata but his government has faced persistent accusations of ignoring the rule of law and economic mismanagement. Apart from Hichilema who has campaigned on fixing the economy, The elections pitted Lungu against eight other candidates including Edith Nawakwi, the only female presidential aspirant.
Lungu said in reaction to the judgement that the Government will comply with the directives of the court because no appeal is provided for against the Constitutional Court decisions. He said the interpretation of the law remains a preserve of the Judiciary and therefore the Government will make no further comment on the matter.
“The Government respects the Judgment of the Constitutional Court and has taken note of its interpretation of the provisions of the Constitution and will therefore comply with the directives contained in the Judgment as they also note that there is no appeal from the Constitutional Court,” said Lungu in a statement released by his press aid Amos Chanda.
It is not clear how the ministers and their deputies, some of whom have lost their seats in last week’s elections, will refund the money.
A junior ruling party official issued a statement saying the party respects the judgement. “In respecting the rule of law, the Patriotic Front wishes to state that it will respect the decision of the Constitutional Court,” said SundayChanda, chairman of the ruling party’s information committee. “Lastly, the Constitutional Court’s ruling confirms that President Lungu has presided over very strong independent institutions with his outstanding record in further strengthening our governance structure.”
Hichilema who was contesting the elections for the fifth time praised the decision by the constitutional court. “It is gratifying to note that the Constitutional Court has ruled that the PF ministers have been holding onto public offices illegally,” he said. “We can only further describe such corrupt conduct by President Edgar Lungu and his ministers as theft.”
Hichilema demanded that all the members of the disbanded cabinet immediately pay back the government money. “We have always been advising on cutting excessive government expenditures in order to channel resources to other needy sectors but President Edgar Lungu and his PF have been not doing so, a true reflection of a greedy leadership,” he said.
Civil society organisation have also welcomed the judgement by the constitutional court and urged those involved to respect the ruling. Transparency International Zambia (TIZ) executive director Goodwell Lungu said the judgement was good in the promotion of good governance in Zambia.
“This is a landmark judgment which TIZ believes sets a good precedent and gives confidence to Zambians that they can rely on the Constitutional Court on Constitutional matters,” Lungu said. “We believe that the Constitutional Court should be a fearless institution of justice for all as it has demonstrated in this ruling.”
He urged the Constitutional Court not to continue making judgments that go against the interests of the executive especially interpreting the constitution correctly to enhance checks and balances.