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Death warrants: Is Mnangagwa playing God

26 Aug 2014 at 07:49hrs | Views

News that Zanu-PF Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa said he will not sign any death warrants because he was once sentenced to death appears to suggest he is now playing God.

Of the 97 people on death row in Zimbabwe, one of them is a woman, who, according to the new constitution, is exempt from execution.  "Fortunately, my signature as justice minister is required for them to be hanged and I am not giving it.

That is why execution has not been done," Mnangagwa said officially opening the SADC Lawyers Association's 15th Annual General Meeting and Conference on 22 August 2014 at the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.

Mnangagwa, who, then a teenager, was sentenced to death in 1965 by the Ian Smith regime for bombing a train during the liberation struggle was only spared from hanging for being under the age of 18.

In his own words while addressing delegates to the World Death Penalty Day in Harare on Wednesday 10th October 2013, Mnangagwa said:

"The death penalty brings utter hopelessness and I remember the mental torture I experienced upon receiving the sentence in 1965. I was fortunate that I was saved by the age technicality (since the law prohibited capital punishment for persons below 18).

For me, it does not matter where I am, I will always speak against the death penalty" (See Sofia Mapuranga, 'Mnangagwa against death sentence,' The Zimbabwean, 11/10/13).

What makes Mnangagwa's position on the death penalty intriguing and unconvincing are the numerous inconsistences in what he says and what he does.

For instance, he could have accepted the finance portfolio after the disputed 2013 polls which he reportedly declined saying the job needed someone younger. Officially he was 67 (see Herbert Moyo, 'Mnangagwa declines finance portfolio, The Zimbabwe Independent, 13/09/13).

Mnangagwa's reasons for rejecting the finance post are therefore far from convincing, in view of the fact that he twice served as acting finance minister – when Bernard Chidzero resigned in 1994 and when Ariston Chambati died in 1996, but could not be confirmed allegedly because the Bretton Woods institutions did not trust him (see Daniel Compagnon (2011) A Predictable Tragedy: Robert Mugabe and the Collapse of Zimbabwe, University of Pennsylvania Press, Pennsylvania, p.167).

If Mnangagwa was seriously opposed to the death penalty, surely, he would have had it removed from the statute book by now given the power and influence he purportedly wields in Zanu-PF. It is incredible that he has served as justice minister twice, when there are other options during which the death penalty has remained on statute books.

Despite his populist rhetoric, by 2002 as justice minister, he had only reduced 9 offences which attracted capital punishment soon after independence to 3 - murder, treason and mutiny (Nomsa Nkala, 'Should Capital Punishment Be Abolished?' The Herald, 27 September 2002).

The possible reason for him accepting the justice portfolio which he supposedly loathes could be linked to Mugabe's fear of retributive justice over the Matabeleland Gukurahundi massacres amid rumours Mugabe is grooming him as his successor who would ensure he avoids potential trial for human rights abuses.

It is alleged as the head of CIO at the time, Mnangagwa masterminded the slaughter of more than 25,000 civilians opposed to Mugabe in Matabeleland in the mid-1980s and was also responsible for the controversial land reform programme that resulted in attacks on white farmers by war veterans who seized their property (see The Scotsman, 'Mugabe grooms ruthless successor,' 20/07/03).

There are also unconfirmed reports suggesting he finally signed the death warrants last week (See Bulawayo 24, 'Mnangagwa signs death warrants,' 23/08/14). According to the online news organisation, "the editor of the Chronicle, Mduduzi Mathuthu, today (23/08/14) said the minister has finally signed. In a Facebook comment on Saturday, Mathuthu said 'Justice Minister signs death warrants after clemency appeals with President exhausted."

If it is true that Mnangagwa finally signed the death warrants, why has he not resigned as he threatened he would do last year?

In October 2013, Mnangagwa was quoted as saying he would rather resign from his ministerial post than sign execution certificates for the 89 people then on death row (See Sofia Mapuranga, 'Mnangagwa against death sentence,' The Zimbabwean, 11/10/13).

Furthermore, it is worth noting that Mnangagwa opposed a court application by two women on death row who were seeking the commutation of their death penalty in February. Mnangagwa said the appeal was unnecessary because work was being done to align the laws to the Constitution adopted in March 2013 (see Margaret Chinowaita, 'Death row inmates appeal unnecessary,' The Daily News, 05/02/14).

In spite of that, Amnesty International has accused Mugabe's regime of denying millions of Zimbabweans their basic human rights by failing to align the country's laws with the new constitution (see The Zimbabwean, 'Amnesty says Mugabe denying millions their rights,' 22/08/14).
Mnangagwa's utterances are seen as grandstanding and a charm offensive as his predecessors had not signed warrants too but did not write home about it. Also as the "Son of God" (Mugabe being "God") he would be foolish to ignore an opportunity to spruce-up his persona.
The SADC lawyers meeting was also a good place to spin Zimbabwe's soiled image to the region's legal brains in light of the graphic news headline in Malawi's Nyasa Times in February last year entitled: "Malawi hangman hired to kill 76 Zimbabweans on death row." That way the appointment was announced raised a lot of fears.

In what some saw as the regime's attempt to intimidate the opposition ahead of the disputed July 2013 elections, Prison Service Commissioner Paradzai Zimondi revealed in February 2013 that the position of hangman had been filled in mid-2012 while showing journalists around Harare Remand Prison.

"Indeed, we now have a hangman but these people are still to be executed. In fact, no-one has been executed in the past 12 years," the Herald quoted him as telling journalists. On the contrary, Amnesty International said Zimbabwe hasn't conducted any executions since 2005, the same year that the country's last hangman retired.

It is not clear if executions have resumed in Zimbabwe given the inconsistencies of justice minister Mnangagwa statements and actions.  However, people are asking:  'Is Mnangagwa playing God?' by appearing to be the giver and taker of life.

About the author:
Clifford is a Social Sciences doctoral researcher at London South Bank University and can be contacted at or

Source - Dr Clifford Chitupa Mashiri
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