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ZAMBIA-POLITICS: Grumbling Over Constitutional Review

Kelvin Kachingwe

LUSAKA, Feb 4 2009 (IPS) - Two years into its work, the Zambia’s National Constitutional Conference (NCC) is finding it difficult to get wide public acceptance.

Evans Kaputo is involved in corruption advocacy with the Civic Education Network, a grouping of civic organisations in Lusaka. He is not impressed that $80 million has been set aside for the constitutional conference.

“All this NCC is a waste of money. What we need to change is the way our money is spent and stiffen laws regarding theft by public servants, corruption, abuse of office and so forth. We need to cut the wages for members of parliament,” he says.

The current constitution review process is the fourth since Zambia gained independence in 1964. The first review, in 1973, served to usher in a one party state, while a second in 1991 showed that system the door and paved the way for a return to multi-party democracy. Five years later, a third review was billed as more firmly entrenching democratic ideals.

The latest review was initiated in 2002 by late President Levy Mwanawasa’s government to address what were believed to be serious flaws in the 1996 constitution. These included a lack of autonomy for the Electoral Commission of Zambia and the inclusion of a clause requiring both parents of a presidential candidate to have been born in Zambia.

Opposition political parties and the majority of civil society believed that the clause to bar non-indigenous Zambians from contesting the presidency was meant to prevent former President Kenneth Kaunda, whose parents were born in neighbouring Malawi, from re-contesting the election.

However, that constitution also discarded many important recommendations such as enshrining the date of the general elections in the constitution, outlawing of the death penalty and establishment of a constitutional court to handle presidential petitions instead of the Supreme Court.

The 1996 constitution was opposed by the churches, human rights organisations and the opposition political parties but was enacted by the ruling party which enjoyed a comfortable majority in parliament at the time.

However, the current constitutional review has also been dogged with controversy from its inception in 2002. To begin with, the government opposed holding a conference to be followed by a referendum, as required by law, arguing that it would be too costly. The current constitution demands not only that a new constitution be ratified by a referendum, but requires that a census be conducted before a referendum is held.

The ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) insists that parliament is the most appropriate body to adopt a new constitution while the opposition and civil society, led by the Patriotic Front and the Oasis Forum – an umbrella group including NGOs, churches and the country’s law association – are demanding that the new constitution be adopted by the Conference and not the government-dominated Parliament to avoid any possible manipulation.

But the government insists that only Parliament has the powers to make laws. And the MMD government, which has the necessary two-thirds majority in Parliament to pass legislation, pushed through the controversial Constitutional Conference Act in August 2007, which set up a standing NCC but also expanded presidential powers and bypassed a constitutional requirement for a national referendum at the end of the consultative process.

Out of a possible 502 members of the NCC, 279 are politicians, made up of 158 Members of Parliament, 48 representatives of political parties and 73 councilors. Only 15 percent of its members are from civil society.

The Oasis Forum says its decision to divorce itself from the NCC is based on the fact that many contentious issues in the NCC Act such as its composition, dominated by politicians, have remained unresolved. The Forum has dismissed the NCC Act as being dictatorial as it gives too many powers to the President which includes disbanding the conference anytime he deems it fit.

An Oasis Forum spokesperson says the Act in its present form does not involve the participation of the people at the level of adoption of the constitution.

Other than the election of the President by more than 50 percent of the votes, there are also demands to have the Vice-President as his running mate and also have the Electoral Commission of Zambia report directly to the legislature as against the executive.

Opposition leader Michael Sata has instructed PF members of parliament not to participate in the NCC and subsequently dismissed 26 MPs who joined it.

Sata says the $80 million that has been set aside for the NCC is costly to the nation given that the contentious provisions in the constitution that need to be amended are well-known by everyone.

The fiery opposition leader says the Zambian people are paying more for food, fuel and bus fares just to feed the NCC delegates and yet its members want to intimidate him for speaking on behalf of the majority of the Zambians.

“I would rather go to prison on behalf of the people of Zambia than keep quiet on knowing how much commissioners at NCC are getting…We know from Parliament that NCC was allocated K400 billion (US$80 million). We want to know how its being disbursed…when they are spending taxpayers money, the taxpayer who can’t afford a bag of mealie meal is entitled to know how they’re spending money at the NCC,” he said.

But NCC secretary Russell Mulele says only (US$9 million) has so far been used, which is slightly 10 percent less than the amount approved by the government in the national budget.

He says with this expenditure, the NCC had been able to accomplish more than half of the work because it is aware of the anxieties and concerns expressed by Zambians.

“Even though the President was mandated by the NCC Act of 1997 to extend the work of the conference after the expiry of its 12 months, it will ensure that the new Constitution is produced within the stipulated time,” he said.

Women for Change programme co-ordinator Lameck Simwanza had suggested late last year that the NCC be given only six months to complete its work but its spokesperson Mwangala Zaloumis said it was not possible because there is still a lot of work to be done.

Zaloumis however says by July this year, the NCC anticipates a first version of the new Constitution which will be published, and then 60 days will be allowed for public coments before the final version is approved.

She says the Constitution to be adopted by the NCC will not be a recommendation of the minister of justice but a final submission of the minister to either a national referudum or parliament depending on the decision of the conference.

“It is incomprehensible why Mr Sata should advocate for the dissolution of the NCC when the process has received broad representation from all the political parties that attended the inter-party dialogue,” she says.

Still the public at large views the NCC with suspicion, and the first version to be published is unlikely to ignite the interest its proponents are looking for.

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