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Constitution Debate: Why the Indaba was off-side and the PF may be going downhill fast

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Michael Sata promised a new constitution as part of his election platform

Michael Sata promised a new constitution as part of his election platform

There were always two ways of looking at the Indaba on the constitution convened in Lusaka at the end of April by the Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (SACCORD), reports Zambian Eye Special Correspondent.

One was that it was a laudable effort however belated to promote the exchange of views around what is turning out to be an intractable issue and that is possibly what those who participated were reaching out for.

The other perspective was that it was merely diversionary as its agenda did not seem to address the issue of the immediate release of the draft directly and did not take sufficient notice of the progress made so far and was therefore forced to bend over backwards to resuscitate issues already discussed or resolved.

Suspicion was latent that the powers that be allowed it and participated only because they were certain that it would change nothing.If it were not so, the police would have stopped it as has become customary under the Patriotic Front(PF).

This was more or less the reason why almost all major opposition parties and leading NGOs stayed away-that its framework was unlikely to break the stalemate.

The Indaba itself was noteworthy only for the opportunity it offered the government to field new excuses through Justice Minister Wynter Kabimba. The real issue,the immediate release of the draft constitution was effectively side-stepped and new and extraneous conditions imposed by government.

The terms of reference under which the draft was drawn are clear. It was to be released simultaneously.There was no provision whatsoever for any kind of cabinet veto! In fact the roadmap outlined by Mr. Kabimba is a clear violation of the spirit and letter of this constitution. It was set out to be people driven and not driven by cabinet which Mr. Michael Sata himself has described as “useless.”

The claim that the technical committee exceeded its remit is nothing new. It is advanced each time a commission returns a “verdict” not to the government’s liking. The same was said of the Roger Chongwe commission into the Western Province and instructively,by the same man!

As for the “disjointed” report there is no basis for believing that since it has not been published. What is clear is that this is a slur on the men and women who spent their time, energy and knowledge working on the draft. It can’t be true that the president appointed people who were not up to the job and if so, he is to blame.

But the Indaba offered one clarification: that the government remains recalcitrant and will not act unless pushed. The initiative has therefore now swung to the Grand Coalition on the Constitution.

It must roll-out its programme of countrywide agitation and that agitation is absolutely essential. Zambia and Zambians will be damned if they allow themselves to be lied to by “useless” politicians. They have to be accountable. The political class is already of doubtful quality as the whole constitution debate shows.

There should be no circumstances under which the basic law of the country becomes a state secret. All efforts therefore should be towards the unconditional release of the draft. It is almost five months late and the reasons for withholding it are neither clear nor convincing. No light was shed on that at the Indaba.

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But from what is often said, one gathers that the main reason is that the country already has a constitution. But it had one even in 2003 when this round started. The country had a constitution even when President Michael Sata and the PF nosily and repeatedly lied as it has turned out about what they would do once elected!

Why then should that be paraded as the reason? Their real reason(s) is unstated and perhaps better left so because the public would be too disappointed with the quality of the governors. But the government should not be allowed to get away with it.

The public has an abiding interest in what is after all the constitution of Zambia on which billions have been spent so far. Hence all the “yapping” that is reverberating in State House is for a good and clear cause!
Any meaningful dialogue now has necessarily to involve President Sata directly as he is the one withholding the draft. The Justice Minister is not a worthwhile interlocutor. He is a mere messenger.

It is also a fact that it is the president who by his open denigration has inflamed the situation. His statements that those calling for a new constitution should be ignored, are yapping and his attempt to intimidate the Catholic bishop of the Eastern Province, the Rt. Rev George Lungu have all irritated many and all actions are anti-democratic in nature.

In a democracy, civil society- ordinary people- have a role in governance. Their having voted to elect a government is not the same as abdicating their right to participation in the affairs of their country. In modern democracies, civil society participation is encouraged and seen as crucial. But not in Zambia apparently where it is characterized as “hijacking.”

The expression“yapping” conjures up an image of several small dogs barking at “superior” animal like a lion. But the president of Zambia is not superior to the people who elected him-they are his employers and he has to defer to them. In this case, the demand is for the president to keep his promise to the people.

The reported angry and threatening presidential telephone call to Bishop Lungu was both disturbing and shameful. Once more, it was well known that the Zambia Episcopal Conference (ZEC) had an abiding and long –standing interest in the constitution and was an active member of the Oasis Forum. Why should it be treason or strange for them to facilitate consultations in view of the unnecessary impasse?

Incidentally, there were places for three Catholic bishops on the technical committee initially. But the bishops merely appointed a representative. It was wise, they would have been in a real mess had they gone by the president! The threats to the bishop were ill-advised and only made the president look as mean as the dictators of old.

The government still has a chance to normalize the situation somewhat by the immediate release of the draft in line with the terms of reference. In the absence of that there will be only one loser –President Sata. He is the only one who publicly promised a new constitution as part of his election platform.

There are many clips of him making that pledge before TV cameras. He is the only one who will take a massive hit. Was he for instance lying-does he lie? His credibility is at stake and the situation in the country is getting worse.

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Prices are rising-of mealie-meal, of fuel and pretty much everything else. Inflation is advancing and the huge fiscal deficit in 2013 has eroded confidence. With copper prices on the decline, the economy could go into a tail-spin like the Kwacha and there may be no quick fix.

After more than two years in power the PF is still without a coherent agricultural policy particularly as regards the purchasing of crops from farmers in a timely fashion. Government is still the main buyer and as it struggles to raise the colossal amounts involved hatred and scorn of it among farmers is rising.

Many times FRA staff have been waylaid or confronted by angry farmers demanding their dues now not tomorrow. This issue is getting to be explosive and it will not help the government to continue “kicking the tin down the road.” But still there is no clear response, only a succession of first-time ministers, all trying to get to grips with the issues but with no notable success so far.

Internationally, the PF will have a bad name very soon if it doesn’t have it already. The iron-clad clampdown on the opposition is unconstitutional .It is also anti-democratic. Equally, the constant arrests and violence on opposition leaders and supporters which is never properly investigated and the increasingly open partiality of the police towards the governing party, all can’t help Mr. Sata’s democratic credentials in much of the civilized world.

Political violence by the PF and the emasculation of the opposition have already tarnished Zambia’s image and the PF is simply headed nowhere with this approach.The international community will not accept this pervasion of democracy and the deliberate attempt to turn Zambia into one-party state again.

The PF is at the cross-roads and would appear to be going downhill fast.
Their continuing dillydallying on the constitution will only call attention to their worsening governance record. There is a real danger that those millions of dollars that Zambia is currently able to borrow on the international market will no longer be as easily available.
The PF must come clean and change direction before it is too late.

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