by Dickson Jere
Moves to finally provide Zambia with its first post-independence constitution have stirred up a political hornet’s nest, with President Levy Mwanawasa’s accusations of treason failing to silence dissent.
While there is a general acceptance that a written constitution for the former British colony is long overdue, the normally mild-mannered Mwanawasa’s involvement has led to another deep rift after last year’s divisive elections.
“The constitution should be the basis of unity in a nation (but) … the constitution debate has been very divisive,” said Lee Habasonda, executive director of the Southern Africa Centre for Conflict Resulotions and Disputes.
In a bid to reach a national consensus on the constitution, 43 years after the former northern Rhodesia gained its independence, a special conference is expected to be held later this year with participants from across the political spectrum invited to attend.
But analysts say the project is being seriously hampered by the involvement of Mwanawasa, with some key players vowing to boycott the conference as it has been tailored to produce a document that favours the president and his camp.
“The composition of the conference is biased towards government and politicians. We shall not go there,” said Marian Munyinda, spokeswoman of the Oasis Forum, a coalition of civic groups.
Such suggestions have particularly annoyed Mwanawasa who introduced a bill that means any new constitution has to be approved by a broad-based conference instead of parliament where his party has a comfortable majority.
On learning earlier this month that his opponents were planning to stage demonstrations against the conference he remarked that “should I hear any more nonsense … they will be arrested and charged with treason.”
Michael Sata, the populist opposition leader who lost last year’s general election to Mwanawasa, has refused to be silenced and argues that Mwanawasa is not interested in having a truly open debate about the constitution.
“The whole process is a fraud because Mwanawasa wants to use it for political expediency,” said Sata.
“My party is not going to take part in the fraud.”
The main disagreement revolves around whether the constitution should specifically entrench rights on social issues such as housing and education rather than solely concentrating on basic legal and human rights.
Mwanawasa is strongly opposed to the idea of specifically according such rights in a country where poverty is endemic.
“If these rights are enshrined in the new constitution, no government is going survive. Presidents will be impeached for failure to provide employment, education and food because that will be breaching the constitution,” he said.
Emily Sikazwe, a popular women rights activist, pointed out that other countries such as South Africa enshrined social rights even if she acknowledged they may not be attained overnight.
“We don’t understand why Mwanawasa is opposed to these progressive provisions in the draft constitution,” she said.
A draft constitution was written in 2005 by a commission appointed by Mwanawasa, which recommended a reduction in presidential powers and laying out detailed human rights.
But Mwanawasa and his government reacted coolly to the proposals and have since pushed for the conference in what opponents see as a diversionary tactic.
Justice Minister George Kunda said the process would continue, regardless of any boycotts.
“We have listened to their concerns and we have taken them on board,” said Kunda.
Diplomats have been largely sympathetic towards Mwanawasa, despite some of his more controversial rhetoric.
“I think he means well. We have met him several times on this issue and he comes out convincing to the extent that he wanted to resign,” said one senior European diplomat.
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