Deadline day for Zambia's constitution?

Zambia will have a draft constitution by the end of September. A host of deadlines have already come and gone but this one will not be missed says the Technical Committee tasked with drafting the country’s new Supreme Law. But don’t hold your breath.

The current drafting process has already been a torturous ten years in the making, and the goal posts for completion of the final draft have been moved so many times that there was no round of applause over this latest announcement.

Author

August 22nd, 2013

Zambia will have a draft constitution by the end of September. A host of deadlines have already come and gone but this one will not be missed says the Technical Committee tasked with drafting the country’s new Supreme Law. But don’t hold your breath.

The current drafting process has already been a torturous ten years in the making, and the goal posts for completion of the final draft have been moved so many times that there was no round of applause over this latest announcement.

Appointed by President Michael Sata way back in November 2011, the Technical Committee on Drafting the Constitution (TCDC) had originally promised to have the draft ready by April of 2012 – although this was soon extended to September 2012. When that deadline passed, the opposition and civil society began to question the sincerity of the Patriotic Front (PF) government, which had pledged during the election campaign to enact a new constitution within 90 days of coming into office.

A new deadline of June 2013 was announced, but that too passed despite growing pressure from a coalition of civil society organisations. The TCDC then asked for yet another extension until December 2013. Despite its members offering to work for free, the appeal for another six months caused such a furore, that the TCDC backed down and agreed to a final deadline of September 2013.

Rueben Lifuka, who is one of the TCDC’s commissioners and a human rights activist, says that the job has now been done and that the final proofs are with the legal editors – so that the document should be ready for printing by the first week of September and available for public scrutiny by the end of the month.

“As far as the Commission is concerned we have done our best, and completed our job, the rest is in the hands of the government to get editors to proof read and then to print the final version,” said Lifuka.

Unsurprisingly, no one will believe it until they actually see the finished document. The ‘constitution review/drafting process’ is synonymous with every administration that has ruled the country since independence in 1964 – with each process being manipulated to serve the interests of the ruling party.

The current constitutional review process has cost the taxpayer over K100m – more than any of the previous five reviews. However, the PF’s Justice Minister, Wynter Kabimba, insists that a good job will inevitably require significant amounts of time and money – to ensure that the final document is accepted by all Zambians and ‘stands the test of time’.

But if this were the only consideration, then the TCDC’s work should have been completed long ago because the substance of all the previous constitutional reviews has been basically the same – national structures of governance must be inclusive and devolved to provincial and district levels; the exercise of functions and powers must be done transparently and functionaries have to be accountable to the people; the separation of powers must be entrenched to provide real checks and balances; and the common list goes on.

All the Commission had to do was refresh the previous documents, especially the most recent one, the Mun’gomba Constitutional Review, which involved the most consultative and comprehensive process.

But once in power, the PF realised that an outdated, flawed constitution, which was designed to keep an autocratic government in power, could help to ensure its own political hegemony and has tried as much as possible to delay the process.

And it is not just the delay that worries the PF’s opponents and civil society groups. While the TCDC says that it has fulfilled its mandate and produced a ‘good constitution’, there are no guarantees that the document that is finally presented to parliament will be the same one that the technical committee has prepared.

Boniface Cheembe, acting Executive Director of the Southern African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes says there is no opportunity to give the final edited document one last look before it goes to print. “For all we know, we could just be shadow boxing – imagining that there is something (in the document) worth fighting for when we actually do not know what’s in it.”

Understandably concerned by this, opposition political parties recently demanded verification of the contents of the draft document to ensure that its contents had not been tampered with, but government dismissed their anxieties.

More ominously, Kabimba has indicated that the new draft might not be subjected to a referendum as agreed in the roadmap. He suggests that the Cabinet issues a white paper to be presented to parliament for ratification “in the interest of time and money”.

It would be a serious blow to the credibility of the constitution, to its acceptance by the people of Zambia and to the hopes of a genuinely people-driven Supreme Law. But with PF numbers rising in parliament, the government is becoming increasingly emboldened and seems increasingly likely to try and ride rough shod over public concerns about the constitution.

And in the current climate, it is unlikely that opposition political parties and civil society will be able to change the government’s plans.

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