Confidence in the Judiciary is a delicate bloom in Africa – Skinner

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“Confidence in the Judiciary is a delicate bloom in Africa and I am not going to risk destroying its growth in Zambia,” said James John Skinner, Chief Justice of Zambia, in his resignation letter reported in the Times of Zambia of 25 September 1969.

 

By Oliver Shaalala Sipeso

Skinner, born on 24 July 1923 was an Irish-born Zambian politician and jurist. In 1951, Skinner emigrated to Northern Rhodesia. He was called to the Bar of Northern Rhodesia in 1951. A defender of African rights, Skinner joined the mainly African United National Independence Party (UNIP) in 1960 and quickly became the party’s legal advisor. He was ostracized by many whites. Friends cold shouldered him, acquaintances ignored him and strangers insulted him.

In 1962 he risked a jail term by refusing to register for potential National Service under the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland Defense Act, stating the Federal Army was a terror force used to oppress the majority of Northern Rhodesia’s citizens.

He stood for parliament in the same year but lost for lack of European support in the very complex voting system of the time. Undeterred he continued to campaign for UNIP and two years later he won Lusaka East on the basis of “one man one vote” beating his African opponent by a handsome margin. He was the only white man to be returned by electors who were all African.

Mr Skinner became a Zambian citizen by registration. In 1964, in the first election following independence, he was elected to represent Lusaka East constituency in parliament while Elijah Mudend took Lusaka West. From independence, Skinner was appointed Minister of Justice, then later he was also appointed as the Attorney General of Zambia until 1967. Consequently, he became the first Minister of Justice of independent Zambia and the only White member of Zambia’s first cabinet.

Later in March 1969, he was appointed Chief Justice of Zambia. Skinner did not last long in his position as Chief Justice in Zambia. He resigned six months later in September 1969 following a clash with President Kenneth Kaunda over the sentencing of Portuguese soldiers from neighbouring Angola. The soldiers were caught on the Zambian side of the Angolan-Zambian border and were arrested. A fellow expatriate jurist, Ifor Evan, concluded the original arrest of the soldiers was “trivial” and dismissed the charges. When the issue was appealed to Skinner, he sided with Evans. Kaunda, a long time friend of Skinner, attacked the White-dominated court for siding with the soldiers.

“It is one of the functions of the judiciary to criticize the action of the executive or its individual servants whenever the need arises. If that right is denied then the courts would no longer effectively carry out their duties.”

The interchange between President Kaunda and the Chief Justice Skinner was followed by organized and widespread demonstrations against the judiciary throughout Zambia. An attack was then made on the High Court in Lusaka by the Zambia Youth Service, a uniformed force of the Republic. Supporters of Kaunda stormed the court building following the ruling, attacking the Whites inside. The building was broken into, in consequence of which members of the judiciary had to barricade themselves in chambers. The demonstrations that were held throughout the country lead to several magistrate court buildings being broken into. Posters grossly abusive to members of the judiciary were carried by the demonstrators and offensive statements concerning Chief Justice Skinner and Mr. Justice Evans were made by officials of UNIP.

This outburst however, shocked President Kaunda. This was the scene of events in September 1969 that lead Chief Justice James Skinner, to resign. He had been legal advisor to UNIP and a close friend of Kenneth Kaunda. He had been highly influential in helping to steer the country towards independence. He was the only white minister in Zambia’s first government when he held the justice portfolio.

Kaunda quickly apologised, but Evan and Skinner fled the country, with Skinner going on “indefinite sick leave”.

In his letter of resignation, he stated that the abuse to which he was subjected by UNIP officials must have affected the confidence of “the common man” in him as chief justice and in a judiciary headed by him. Confidence in the judiciary was a delicate bloom in Africa, he wrote, “and I am not going to risk destroying it in Zambia”. He felt that if the rule of law was to prosper in Zambia, ordinary Zambians must have confidence in the judiciary, only then would full democracy be brought about .

Skinner was adamant that the independence of the judiciary was necessary to preserve democracy and the rule of law, and thus resigned. He was unwilling to work in a system that betrayed these principles although, President Kaunda condemned the violence that had occurred. He later apologized for what had happened and invited Skinner to resume his duties, Skinner declined. President Kaunda was caught between his respect for an independent Judiciary and the nationalist outrage of Zambian citizens over the Portuguese who had been bombing Zambian villages in order to hit the anti-Portuguese guerrillas.

Skinner was close to Kaunda. Remember the night without a president?

In the book “The night without a President”, veteran politician Sikota Wina’s shows how tribalism almost destroyed the new independent nation of Zambia in the late 1960s; forcing President Kaunda to resign for a night. The leaders of that time didn’t work towards resolving their tribal differences and that problem remains to date. If there is something that “The night without a President” reveals, it is that tribal suspicion has a history in our political discourse. Just as some Easterners and Lozis vowed not to support a Bemba then, the situation has not changed that much. Kaunda was said to be saddened by these developments. Fearing he was losing control of the party, Kaunda ‘verbally’ resigned as President – he never tendered that critical resignation letter – and this ‘resignation’ resulted in that now famous “night without a president”. The reason given by Kaunda’s handlers to explain the resignation was that the party had been divided along tribal lines and that Kaunda had offered to resign the presidency because he was (allegedly) too hurt by the tribalism going on in the country and he would not lead a party based on those principles.

However, Valentine Musakanya’s account of this event, – as detailed in the “Musakanya Papers”; a book by Valentine Musakanya and which catalogues Kaunda’s increasing dictatorial and autocratic tendencies – alleges that, in actual fact, this was just a ploy by Kaunda to call the dissenters’ bluff and wrestle back the power of the party.

Musakanya posited that “Kaunda orchestrated this whole episode and merely pretended that he was resigning in order to see if Simon Kapwepwe (his controversial and mysterious Vice-President) was really loyal to him. Like a typical Mafia boss, absolute personal loyalty was the most important thing to Kaunda, so he asked his informants to tell him exactly how Kapwepwe would react to the news of his resignation. Fortunately for Kapwepwe, he did not fall for this insidious trap: he joined the rest in beseeching their ‘great irreplaceable leader to rescind his unbearable decision!’”

Musakanya reminds the reader to keep in mind that UNIP was preparing to contest the first general elections since independence and could ill afford any party discord. Kaunda’s verbal, and not written resignation, was a calculated move and only done after getting legal advice from the Attorney General (AG) James Skinner and the Chief Justice. The AG had advised Kaunda, that a verbal resignation was a ‘nullity’, in other words, something which may be treated as nothing, as if it did not exist or never happened. This had the desired effect and Kaunda was gratefully reinstated as President. Having averted this power struggle in UNIP, Kaunda then saw his Government lose many seats to the opposition parties in the General elections of 1968.

John James Skinner was also a political gymnast.

I digress…. A month after Skinner went on “leave”, he resigned and was replaced on the court by Brian Doyle, a fellow White Zambian.

He however remained on good terms with President Kaunda after his resignation.

Following his time as a Zambian jurist, he practiced at the Irish Bar before being appointed Chief Justice of Malawi in 1970, a position he held for 15 years UP TO 1985. During the presidency of the dictatorial Hastings Banda he managed to ensure the stability and independence of the judiciary.

Skinner died on 21st October 2008.

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SUMMARY: Skinner was:
* Minister of Justice from October 1964 – January 1965.
* Attorney General from January 1965 – March 1969, in addition to being Minister of Legal Affairs from January 1967 – December 1968.
* Chief Justice from March 1969- September 1969.

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PICTURE: KK personally escorting Skinner when he left Zambia for London.

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SOURCE: Various. (I have not edited some of the prose which may be copy-and-paste in cases. When I reference this in my book I will do a better job.)

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