An Attorney Goes Rogue: Why Mumba Malila Is Wrong To Challenge the Masebo Tribunal

 Munshya wa Munshya

William Harrington, a private citizen of Zambia wrote the Chief Justice of Zambia requesting that a tribunal be instituted to probe the activities of a cabinet minister. Hon. Sylvia Masebo is alleged to have committed some irregularities with regard to her role in personnel firing, board appointments and subsequent awarding of tenders in the Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife. Harrington petitioned the Chief Justice in keeping with the Parliamentary and Ministerial Code of Conduct. At section 13 (1) the Code states that:

An allegation that a Member has breached Part II may be made to the Chief Justice by any person, in writing giving particulars of the breaches or breaches alleged, signed by the complainant and giving the complainant’s name and address.

What is so interesting about the facts of this case is how similar they are to a case, again brought by the same William Harrington (Harrington v. Siliya & Attorney General [2009]). In the Siliya case, Harrington had brought similar charges accusing Hon Dora Siliya of obtaining pecuniary advantage from her position as Minister of Transport and Communications. The Siliya case made its way up to the Supreme Court and its ratio decidendi must be relied on in this new case of Masebo.

With regard to Harrington v. Masebo, however, the Acting Chief Justice of Zambia, Lombe Chibesakunda neglected to constitute a tribunal. Among other reasons, she rationalized that she did not have sufficient information from Harrington. Harrington sought judicial review of Chibesakunda’s decision and Justice Sichinga of the Lusaka High Court ruled that under the Ministerial Code of Conduct the Chief Justice of Zambia should have constituted the tribunal.

When Harrington petitioned Justice Sichinga, Zambia’s Attorney General joined the proceedings, as expected. Mumba Malila was of the view that the Chief Justice was right in her decision to stall in appointing the tribunal. Obviously, Mumba Malila lost this case and Justice Sichinga sided with Harrington. Chibesakunda was going to appoint the tribunal.

Zambia’s Chief Justice, in so far as she functions within contemplation of the Ministerial Code of Conduct, is not functioning as a judicial officer but rather as an officer of the administrative state. And so with regard to her constituting of the tribunal she is subject to normal judicial review procedure. It is, therefore, not surprising that a judge, one court her junior, compelled her to appoint a tribunal. After Sichinga’s ruling, Chief Justice Chibesakunda complied with the court and appointed a tribunal to probe the conduct of Hon. Sylvia Masebo. However, before the tribunal could sit, Sylvia Masebo and the Attorney General applied to court to have this decision stayed as the Attorney General appeals to the Supreme Court.

What is at issue here is whether Zambia’s Attorney General can in fact appeal against a tribunal set-up to probe a political leader. In other words, is it legally right within our legal and political system of governance for Mumba Malila to appeal against the formation of a tribunal by the Chief Justice?

The goal of the Ministerial Code of Conduct is clearly laid down in statute. It is aimed at increasing political accountability of members of cabinet not only to the president but also to the people of Zambia directly. Section 3 (1) of the Ministerial Code of Conduct Act states that:

The provisions of this Part shall constitute part of the code of conduct for Members for the purposes of the Constitution, a breach of which results in the vacation of the seat of the Member concerned.

It is the people of Zambia who appoint and vote for politicians to lead in governing. However, it is within contemplation of both the constitution and statute that politicians will have to account personally for their official acts. It is in this vein, therefore, that the role of Harrington should be seen and interpreted. This being the case, the Attorney General of Zambia, should not appear to be impeding political accountability of ministers to the people of Zambia. Instead of impeding this accountability, the Attorney General should be enhancing it.

The law governing the role of the Attorney General in our democracy can be found in at least three sources: the common law, the constitution and statute. Constitutionally, the role of the Attorney General is espoused in Article 54 of the constitution. Statutorily, the role of the Attorney General can be found in various statues that bring his role under contemplation. The common law also has some specific judge made rules regarding the role of the Attorney General. A review of all these three sources reveals the following principles.

First, the AG is the principal legal advisor of the government. This means that she is the lawyer or counsel for the president and his government. Typically then, President Sata and his government ministers go to court under the cover of the Attorney General. The role of legal adviser is just that “adviser”. This does not mean that government cannot make decisions unless the AG endorses them. According to the impeccable reasoning of Justice Musonda in the Dora Siliya Tribunal case, while the AG is indeed a legal adviser to the government, a government minister is not under legal duty to accept the advise from the AG. Just like what happens in any solicitor to client relationship, a client can refuse to follow counsel. Having the AG as legal adviser to government does not mean that government should only function according to the advise of the Attorney General. The Supreme Court on appeal did not have problems with Musonda’s reasoning per se, they only took issues with his decision to delve into constitutional matters considering that the case at his bar was a judicial review application.

In our political government it is not laws that rule through people, but rather people that rule through laws. Laws are not the principal but people are. It is politicians we hold responsible for government and not laws. As such, Musonda was right. Government can be crippled if it has to wait for an AG to advise on each and every issue. In fact, Musonda went even further by suggesting that sometimes the duty of governance entails taking political decisions that are at variance with the current state of the law. Laws take a long time to change, and no government should be held to ransom due to the inflexibility of laws in so far as governance is concerned. Just as no courts of law can promulgate an injunction against the state, so can’t the advise of the AG bind the state. A politician who makes a decision, with or without advise from the AG is still personally and politically responsible for her decision. It is quite telling, that during the time of the Dora Siliya case, it was Mumba Malila who was AG. It does appear like he never learnt from this opinion. As adviser to government, Mumba Malila should not assume that he could block political accountability of government ministers.

Second, the AG is the general officer of the juristic public interest. This role goes beyond being a legal counsel to a sitting government. If the public interest were a person, the lawyer it would hire would be and should be the AG. In a general sense, the AG acts for this public interest. Public interest could include the AG intervening in certain criminal prosecutions due to the general nature of its impact on public interest. Public interest is widely interpreted. In fact, most courts would let the AG join in court proceedings quite liberally. The courts respect the role of the AG in this respect. I see that Malila could use this power to say that he is interfering in the Masebo case due to public interest matters. The problem in arguing this would betray the very nature of public interest which is on the side of personal accountability of ministers to the people of Zambia. If Malila cannot tell what is truly in public interest, then he should resign from this position and the taxpayers can be better served by a leader of the Zambian bar who understands what is truly at the heart of this public interest.

Third, the AG is the lawyer not only of the political government, but also of the administrative government. What this means is that the AG is legal counsel for the Zambian administrative state with all its tributaries. All state institutions covered under administrative law are within cover of the Attorney General. The administrative law includes statutory bodies, tribunals and commissions of the state. It is this limb that makes the Attorney General to be party to court cases involving the ECZ and bodies such as the Mutuna tribunal. Once an administrative act is done, it automatically assumes a legal defender: the Attorney General.

Specifically, the tribunal is funded directly by the taxpayer (s.15 of the Ministerial Code of Conduct). A taxpayer funded operation; the tribunal deserves legal representation from the foremost taxpayer legal counsel, the Attorney General.

Since a tribunal constituted by the administrative state should have the Attorney General as its lawyer, it becomes quite questionable that in the case of Sylvia Masebo tribunal, the Attorney General has decided to join proceedings against the tribunal. This is quite unusual. The major question to ask here is: who is the client of the AG between Masebo and the tribunal?

Munshya wa Munshya
Munshya wa Munshya

Masebo cannot be client of the Attorney General because within the contemplation of the Ministerial Code of Conduct, a minister is personally responsible for his or her action. What Harrington is petitioning is that Masebo might have gotten pecuniary advantage from her position as minister. The Code is aimed at increasing personal accountability of government political leaders. If the Attorney General impedes this then personal accountability will be betrayed. Even if Masebo made decisions on advise of the AG in the first instance, once a tribunal has been instituted against her, the AG ceases to be her lawyer. She must find other lawyers to represent her. As it were, the tribunal is a government organ while Sylvia Masebo in so far as the tribunal is concerned does not function as a government organ. The tribunal is a political process of accountability of government ministers directly to the people. In fact, specifically the Code of Conduct brings a ministerial tribunal at par with Commission of Inquiry instituted under the Inquiries Act (Code of Conduct section 14 [10]). Therefore, there should no difference between a constitutional review commission and ministerial tribunal. They are both organs instituted by the State.

By insisting that he represent her or rather that he defends her, Malila has betrayed the Zambian people who are actually his clients. If Malila wants to be Masebo’s lawyer then the honourable thing he should do is to give up the taxpayers’ salary and go and become Masebo’s lawyer. The Zambian people have already hired Malila. He has a duty to defend both good and bad decisions made by the Zambian state. He has a duty to defend the tribunal even if it were irregularly constituted. In fact, he should be spending time trying to defend the tribunal rather than betraying it.

The principle here is not that Chibesakunda was right or wrong to constitute a tribunal. The issue is whose client will the tribunal be? And it is clear that the tribunal already has a lawyer: Mumba Malila. If Malila does not want that then he should resign. A new AG will meet him in court and defeat him viciously.

Note: This article is meant for academic and public interest comment. It is not intended to render specific legal advise. Those seeking legal advice should consult members of the Zambian Bar. (c)Munshya wa Munshya, 2013

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