When asked why he had decided to support the Patriotic Front’s 2015 amendments to the Zambian constitution, Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) president Nevers Mumba put a spin in his answer. “That constitution”, he claimed, “is an MMD constitution”.
Dr. Mumba continued, “it is the Patriotic Front (PF) that has shifted its position to support our constitution.” Mumba may have been right. Most of the constitution amendments President Lungu signed on Tuesday, January 5 2016, were first advocated during President Levy Mwanawasa’s tenure by the Mwanakatwe Constitutional Review Commission.
President Lungu was signing in essence a document that has been many years in the making. The beauty of democracy is that when something beautiful happens, everybody can claim credit for it. But without taking anything away from the many parties, people, and groups that helped in bringing to us the 2016 amendments to the 1991 constitution we must commend President Lungu.
In the end it was his call to make, and he made the right call. We must all support and encourage his gesture.
Civil society organisations need commendation as well. The Oasis Forum remained resolute in its push for a “people driven constitution” from the early 2000s.
As an organisation comprising the church, civil society, and other groups, the Oasis Forum had the legitimacy to advocate for a constitution that would stand a test of time. The greatest hindrance to their effort were always going to be politicians who were quite unwilling to accede to Oasis’ demands. With Levy Mwanawasa’s attitude to the constitution making effort, it was all but impossible to have a new constitution under his tenure.
However, after the passing of Mwanawasa, it appeared like the push towards a “people driven constitution” would become a reality.
Well, it almost became a reality, until parliament frustrated President Rupiah Banda’s effort to amend the constitution through the constitutional conference. Rupiah Banda’s humiliation came at the hand of the Patriotic Front and the United Party for National Development (UPND) parliamentarians who refused to support the then ruling MMD party.
In 2011, the Patriotic Front party and its leader Michael Sata campaigned on the promise that Zambians will have a “people driven constitution” within 90 days. Sata won the elections, and immediately appointed a committee of experts to look into the constitution. He was openly opposed to having dual nationality in the constitution. Later, after the committee of experts had concluded its work, Sata made a U-turn and stated that he was not as keen on having a new constitution.
The constitution was alright as it stood, he claimed. He also famously claimed: “civil society is wrong to demand for a ‘people driven constitution’ as if there is an ‘animal driven constitution’”. This did not sit very well with civil society.
Particularly, the Grand Coalition (an association of civil society advocating for a new constitution) were deeply betrayed. But never to lose focus, they continued to advocate for a new constitution that should include the Bill of Rights and be adopted through a referendum. For the Grand Coalition, a constitution that does not meet these two factors will lack the needed legitimacy.
This was the popular position, until the Young African Leadership Initiative (YALI) came on the scene.
YALI’s leaders Andrew Ntewewe and Isaac Mwanza took a different position from that of the Grand Coalition. Instead of arguing about the Bill of Rights and the referendum, the Zambian parliament could amend some non-contentious clauses in the constitution that every body seem to agree on and then leave the contentious clauses such as the bill of rights and the referendum to a later time. This argument was innovative and quite refreshing.
YALI was making arguments not based on rigid positions, but rather on principle.
They were wiling to accommodate, to listen, and to give and take, features that were lacking in the positional bargaining taken by the Grand Coalition. Democracy is an orgy of ideas; the Grand Coalition could have been blindsided by its passion for a people driven constitution to the extent that they became incapable of compromising. Zambia needed YALI to come and offer a perspective that would counter the positional perspective of the Grand Coalition.
However, YALI and the Grand Coalition might have had different ideas about how to approach the constitution question, but in the end, it is the people of Zambia that won, and that is exactly how a democracy should function.
President Lungu’s decision to sign the amendments could be a product of both chance and courage. Zambians were quite tired of singing the same chorus of the constitution.
The amendments are not enough, but they provide a good start as we look at amending the Bill of Rights. For now, at least, we have a set election date for general elections. Zambians who become citizens of other nations would not automatically lose their Zambian citizenship. There are several more provisions that are progressive.
I do wish the Grand Coalition and all those people involved in this process to continue their hard work and advocacy for the Bill of Rights and several other important matters to strengthen our democracy. Lungu’s constitution has come a long way, and embodies the resolute commitment of all Zambians.