ZAMBIA-POLITICS: Grumbling Over Constitutional Review

LUSAKA  - 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.

(IPS)

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