Trying to bury Zambia's new Constitution

For ten years while in opposition, Michael Sata talked about a Constitution that would be enduring, people-driven and would meet the aspirations of all Zambians. In 2011, his Patriotic Front (PF) party won the elections partly because of a campaign promise to enact a new Constitution within 90 days of taking office – a pledge that was enshrined in its manifesto.

Author

January 16th, 2014

For ten years while in opposition, Michael Sata talked about a Constitution that would be enduring, people-driven and would meet the aspirations of all Zambians. In 2011, his Patriotic Front (PF) party won the elections partly because of a campaign promise to enact a new Constitution within 90 days of taking office – a pledge that was enshrined in its manifesto.

After almost three years in power, Sata has failed to fulfil his promise. Indeed, he recently performed a 180 degree turn and called the coalition of people calling on him to publish the final draft of the new Constitution ‘saboteurs’.

Having forced the Technical Committee tasked with drafting Zambia’s new Supreme Law to hand their final version over to him and him alone, recently, Sata made it clear that there was no need to rush the Constitutional process – although few would say that it had been progressing at anything more than a snail’s pace up to now – since the 1996 Constitution was in place. He added that the Cabinet must first vet the draft before releasing it to the public in order to “”.

This flies in the face of the guiding principles of the Technical Committee, which state that the final draft should be given to the president and public simultaneously. But clearly, there are provisions within the draft that Sata does not like and just as clearly, he was hoping to bury it – or use the time to rewrite the offending sections.

That will be more difficult now since both the Zambian Watchdog and  have released a constitution. But the power is still very much in Sata’s hands.

However, the very ‘masses’ that Sata says he is trying to protect have organised themselves into a potent coalition – including civil society organisations, NGOs, the church and opposition political parties – to push the process towards conclusion.

Earlier this month, an impressive public rally to demand the release of the draft Constitution and a timeline for its enactment was held at the Cathedral of the Holy cross – the place where Zambian politics usually finds resolution. The authorities were swift to dismiss this gathering as ‘totally unnecessary’ and a ploy to discredit government.

The chief government spokesperson, Mwansa Kapeya, insists that the PF will not abdicate its responsibility to deliver a Constitution and is committed to transparency and the rule of law, but stops short of discussing people’s concerns over the process of enactment. And while they have not been giving any details, both Sata and Kapeya have ensured that the debate focused on when the draft would be released rather than what is in it, which is the real bone of contention. It was a clever bit of political spin but probably futile now that the draft has been leaked.

The current situation is wonderfully ironic given that Sata led a boycott of the last Constitutional Review in 2010 because it was initiated under the Inquiries Act – a nefarious piece of legislation that allows the president to set up commissions that report solely to him and then decide whether or not to release their findings to the public – and the resultant document did not, as he loudly asserted, ‘reflect the views and aspirations of the Zambian people’. Needless to say the current process was set up by Sata using the Inquiries Act!

At the end of the day, Sata – for all his talk about being a man of the people and being a different kind of leader – has failed to put the needs and wishes of his people before his own desire to continue to enjoy the current – largely unaccountable and unchecked – presidential powers. It is the same reason why previous constitutional reform processes failed. Presidents do not want to surrender any of their strength.

And even more importantly, the elephant in the room when it comes to the Constitution has always been the ‘50% + 1’ clause. This requires successful presidential candidates to win an absolute majority of votes cast. Since Zambia introduced multi-party politics in 1991, no president has ever been able to win a majority of the vote. In the 2011 poll, Sata came top with 44 percent. And like his predecessors, he has had to resort to luring opposition members of parliament to join his team with ministerial and diplomatic positions to give him the majority to govern.

There are other clauses that are unpopular with the powers-that-be and it will be very interesting to see how Sata acts now that the draft has been leaked. The people want a new Constitution, and they know what they submitted to the Technical Committee during all the public consultations – and now they know what the Technical Committee submitted to Sata.

And he knows that the 2016 elections are already drawing near and that he urgently needs to regain his populist hero status to win a second term. And he also knows that the only way he can begin to rebuild his support and reputation is to give the people what has eluded them since independence. And exactly what he does not want to give them.

Their own – more modern, more progressive and long-lasting – Constitution.

Contacts

  • 1 Hood Avenue/148 Jan Smuts; Rosebank, GP 2196; South Africa
  • T. +27 (0)11 587 5000
  • F. +27 (0)11 587 5099