In the ongoing debate about the death penalty in the new Constitution, a strong religious argument was given by former High Court Judge Justice Simpson Mutambanengwe, who described capital punishment in Zimbabwe as ungodly and a disobedience of the creator’s commandments.

Matambanengwe, who sent several people to the gallows when he was still sitting on the bench, delivered a powerful message that was redolent with the scriptures at a workshop that was organized this week in Harare to talk about the death sentence that is still being practiced in the predominantly Christian country. At the function, Minister of Defence Emmerson Mnangagwa told delegates that he had been facing resistance in Cabinet as he tried to have it scrapped from the Constitution. 

 “‘Thou shalt not kill’ those are the words of God and I am a creature who just obey those words,” said Mutambanengwe who is now the head of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZMC), the body charged with presiding over elections in the country. Zimbabwe is going to decide on the referendum whether the death sentence which has proved to be ineffective in deterring crime should be part of the supreme law. However, Mutambanengwe said that there is no need to debate the death penalty as it is the law of God that was given to “Moses not as an individual but to him as Israel the people of God.”

Dr. Fainos Mangena, Senior Lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe, says he agrees with the retired judge’s conclusion but feels the argument can also be made from African ethics.  Mangena, who is writing a book on the ethics of the death penalty narrative in Zimbabwe, says that the death penalty is immoral “because it is predicated on the idea of retributive justice which is alien to sub-Saharan Africa, where the philosophical ideal is uhuntu.”

“Crime and punishment are shared goods — if I commit a crime, my siblings are also somehow culpable, but retributive justice is individual.  The concept of ngozi (the avenging spirits) is not retributive but restorative, that is to say communitarian.”

Religious groups have also come out on both sides of the issue, some emphasizing the moral issues, some the practical dimensions. Mangena says that the Catholic position is that capital punishment must be abolished because it is an abuse of human rights. But some other churches say it can still be retained, as long as it is not abused. “It seems to me that many Pentecostal churches still think capital punishment is useful”, explains Mangena.

But for Mutambanegwe, pragmatic arguments pale before the commands of God. “Zimbabwe is duty bound to obey the word of God and it is therefore not a matter of opinion of what you think but to obey, or else we are not his children. It is a matter of faith and obedience, life is sacred,” said Mutambanegwe.

Mutambanengwe added that Zimbabwe which he described as having a similar relationship with Israel should obey every word of God who gave the country the freedom that it is enjoying today.

“The motive is that of gratitude to God for creation, preservation and also exodus from slavery and also many other blessings that went on with it,” he said adding that “Zimbabweans should remember that there have humble beginnings and are there because of God.”

 Other staff contributed research to the article.