by Barbara Lopi
“Zambians should not be too expectant of the document because there is no constitution that does not discriminate. I have never heard of a constitution that takes care of the interests of all citizens, hence, we cannot think of a completely non-discriminatory document here.”
With these words, President Frederick Chiluba of Zambia, set the tone of what was to be expected when he told a team of constitutional review commissioners last year, after receiving the draft constitutional review that, “constitutions everywhere in the world are discriminatory in one way or the other.”
From the time the draft constitution was made public, Zambia has been engulfed by a constitution controversy now threatening to infuse political tensions that might disrupt the country’s process to the general election due in October this year.
Central to the controversy has been the citizenship clause on presidential candidates which disqualifies people who have been elected twice as president for re-election to that office, and allows only Zambian citizens born in Zambia, of Zambian-born parents, as eligible candidates for republican presidency.
In parliament, the Constitution Amendment Bill was rejected by opposition Members of Parliament (MPs) who later boycotted the debate. On May 21, parliament however, passed the bill with minor amendments. The new bill that became law when Chiluba endorsed it with his signature, a week later, limits presidential aspirants to second generation Zambians, and bar chiefs from participating in politics.
Following the new law, former president Kenneth Kaunda, who ruled the country for 27 years, and now heads the country’s largest opposition, United National Independence Party (UNIP), and his vice, senior Chief Inyambo Yeta are disqualified from the electoral race.
It is feared that the bill passed by the ruling Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD) parliamentarians, amid protests from the opposition, civil society organisations and individual citizens could cost the country’s newly earned democracy.
Kaunda and his supporters have repeatedly threatened to lead a civil disobedience campaign and create violence to make it impossible for Chiluba to govern, if the bill is not changed to allow him contest the elections. “From now on Zambia is on fire – until they change that stupid law there is no peace in this country,” Kaunda declared, on the day Chiluba signed the controversial bill.
The controversy surrounding the new law has created political instability in Zambia, that raises concern among neighbouring countries in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), who fear the situation might derail development and regional integration in the sub-region.
A local weekly, the Chronicle, reports that a major civil strife is looming, with UNIP decreeing that they will stop people from voting in the general elections following the passing of the constitutional amendment bill.
Botswana president Keturnile Masire, in his capacity as SADC chairperson, recently called for a regional summit of member states to discuss the political situation in Zambia, a move the Zambian government rejected.
Chiluba is reported to have been unhappy with what his party chairperson Sikota Wina, described as, SADC’s indifferent attitude to the ruling MMD, and a clear soft spot for Kaunda, who championed the freedom struggle in the region. “There is no political crisis in Zambia. The problem is Dr Kaunda. When he went into retirement, there was peace between the political parties,” Chiluba says.
Political observers within and outside Zambia say that barring Kaunda from contesting the elections will not augur well in a country whose commitment to democracy is under scrutiny. They also argue that the SADC region cannot afford to have its members engulfed in political crisis at a time when the regional body is devoting its efforts to consolidate political and economic stabilisation.
The donor countries who funded most of the constitutional review exercise had earlier indicated their wish to see that the controversial clauses in the constitution were debated widely before adoption, to consolidate democracy and commitment to enhancing political stability.
Prudence Bushnell, Principal Deputy Secretary for African Affairs in the United States is keenly monitoring democracy in Zambia, while some western governments threatened to freeze aid to Zambia unless the contentious issues, in the bill were withdrawn or revised to let Kaunda contest the elections.
Chiluba, however, is adamant, and has vowed to endorse the passed bill. “It would be folly to tailor the constitution around an individual, now or in future, because then, it won’t stand the test of time,” he says.
The country’s clergy, who made frantic efforts to bring the government and the opposition to a round table discussion maintain that the political climate calls for an urgent meeting for all the parties to dialogue. “The country might be caught up in a civil war if the MMD and the opposition do not meet in a peaceful discussion. The average Zambian does not want war. But it is clear from the provocative statements made by politicians from all the major political parties that the spectre of violence is looming,” said Bishop John Mambo, Overseer of the Church of God in Zambia.
It is also feared that the constitution wrangle might worsen the problem of voter apathy. Out of the 4.5 million targeted voters, only 60% was recorded after extending the voters registration exercise twice. Whether even this percentage will vote, is a question whose answer will only be known after elections.
“Voter apathy is a protest from the voters who have been disappointed, and now think politics is merely a channel to enriching oneself,” said Zambia Independent Monitoring Team (ZIMIT) chairperson Alfred Zulu.
With the current atmosphere in Zambia, it is clear that the elections will not be as easy as the 1991 polls, for both the presidential and parliamentary candidates. The challenge remains for the government and the disputed parties to iron out their difference till then (SARDC)
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