Worth fighting for

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

Isn’t life hard for the average City lawyer at the moment? There’s so much to think about. Even if turnover is going to hit budget by the end of the financial year, profits are probably going to fall short without the nice little earners emanating from the corporate boys and girls.

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.

Ventures backed by foreign money are just a memory, and few home-grown companies have the cash to expand.

But her main concern is not getting the work in, but 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 hands of ruling party Zanu PF supporters.

In recent weeks, a lawyer was beaten for daring to represent a supporter of the opposition party Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). Police have turned a blind eye when lawyers have been 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 your practice is not in Harare.

Zigomo is part of a delegation from the Zimbabwean Crisis Group, which is visiting London 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 with 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, while she is waiting for the photographer, Zigomo asks me whether her hair looks all right before casually saying: “After this, there will probably be people at the airport waiting to take me away.”

Misled by her smile and light-hearted manner, I laugh briefly before realising that she isn’t joking. While The Lawyer 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 firms who have been illegally evicted or those representing people 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 stems 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 Mugabe’s tardy and corrupt land redistribution policy threatened to hand power over to the opposition. And with unemployment standing at a minimum of 60 per cent and an inflation rate of 115 per cent, you can understand how Mugabe has not got the strongest message with which to hit the campaign trail. So as any good dictator would, Mugabe has 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, Zigomo believes that 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,” Zigomo says. “As much as people were worried about certain judges being appointed, I think the judges were not willing to subvert the law for their political party.”

For instance, a recent judgment from a pro-Zanu PF judge found 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. Although it is also a judgment that the government completely ignored, as it has with others.

The situation has greatly affected how Zimbabwean lawyers work. Before, Zigomo says that lawyers tended 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 – saying off the cuff that the president would be “mad” to do something, could end up in a very nasty encounter.

“We’ve had to become much more like ‘street lawyers’ if I can borrow the phrase from John Grisham,” smiles Zigomo. “Lawyers can be very humorous and also very stinging. But if you do not make what you are saying very clear, then people think this is the sort of statement that comes from the MDC, and therefore you must support the MDC. And 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.

Now, Zigomo says, 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. “Journalists came out so strongly when they were detained I think that was the only reason that they were not killed. We need the situation in Zimbabwe that if a lawyer loses touch with the Law Society then the society can alert international concern.”

As for the sanctions pushed for by Jack Straw at the recent Commonwealth meeting and rejected in favour of urging Mugabe to change, she is in two minds. “Sanctions should have been discussed long ago,” she says. “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.”

Zigomo stresses that general sanctions would have a devastating impact on ordinary people and ‘smart’ sanctions, applicable only to the country’s rulers, would also be limited in their short-term effectiveness. For example, it has been suggested that an international travel ban could be placed on Mugabe, but if he is fighting an election, he is unlikely to want to wander off for a bit anyway.

Zigomo argues that it might be far better to take the European Union’s stance of threatening to impose sanctions if certain conditions are not met. As I write, one of the conditions is being met, with a group of EU observers arriving in Harare for the general election, so the threat seems to have worked for the moment.

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 mourns not only the impact that the crumbling rule of law is having on her country, but the way that 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.

She is obviously a bright woman, so has she never thought of leaving? “I have,” she nods sadly. “But I love my country and I think there is hope for it. It’s a beautiful country with beautiful people.”
Lydia Zigomo
Zimbabwean Crisis Group