July 29, 2003

Ongoing opposition to constitutional review

Civic groups in Zambia on Tuesday, July 29, reacted angrily to recent comments by President Levy Mwanawasa accusing them of trying to destabilise the government. Mwanawasa reportedly said NGO leaders wanted to undermine Zambia's ongoing constitutional review process and threatened to deport those who were not Zambian. "We can't have foreigners interfering in the running of our affairs," local newspaper The Zambia Daily Mail quoted Mwanawasa as saying at a political rally at the weekend.

But rights activists told IRIN that Mwanawasa's comments were an attempt to muzzle criticism of the government's handling of the constitutional review process. "Mr Mwanawasa's comments were unfortunate but we have heard the argument before in Zambia. Successive governments have tried to raise the ethnic origins of their critics to undermine, intimidate and silence the opposition. Admittedly, there are a few influential civic leaders who have one parent who isn't Zambian but that does not mean that they are not citizens," spokeswoman for the Oasis Forum, Lucy Muyoyeta, said.

In 1996, former president Frederick Chiluba forced through a constitutional amendment limiting the presidency to people with both parents born in Zambia. He used it to bar founding president Kenneth Kaunda from attempting a comeback in 1996.

The Oasis Forum, an umbrella body comprising the country's main churches and NGOs, opposed Mwanawasa's decision to have the Zambian constitution reviewed for the fourth time by using a Constitutional Review Commission (CRC). The rejection of the CRC is largely due to concerns that Mwanawasa will play a key role in selecting the participants, and deciding on whether to accept the commission's recommendations. "We maintain that the only way to have a durable constitution is through a representative constituent assembly which would create a document that all Zambians can take ownership of," Muyoyeta said. She added that although Mwanawasa had said he would introduce the required bills in parliament to pave the way for a constituent assembly, there had been little progress. "At present there is no legal framework to support the setting-up of the constituent assembly and the government has not initiated any moves to get the process started," she said.

Opposition to the CRC reached a crescendo earlier this year when the Oasis Forum encouraged people to honk their horns and wear green ribbons in protest. At the time police threatened to arrest and charge those participating in the campaign. Zambian civil society groups have pushed for constitutional reform, partly on the basis that too much power is vested in the presidency.

In a separate development, Mwanawasa defended the decision to appoint Nangoma MP Kennedy Shepande to the ruling MMD following his expulsion from the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND), after he became works and supply deputy minister. “Opposition political parties will not succeed in blocking their members of parliament from accepting ministerial positions” Mwanawasa said.

Speaking after swearing-in Shepande at State House, President Mwanawasa said it would not help any opposition party that disadvantaged its members of parliament who accepted ministerial position. "Who is a loser in this case?...As far as MMD is concerned UPND has lost an MP who could have influenced policy decisions in government," he said. President Mwanawasa said he refused to accept that he had stolen someone from a political party. "There is no party that owns anybody," he said. President Mwanawasa said Zambians should refuse to be owned by any political party.

He said Shepande's re-election was confirmation that his choice for him to serve in government was correct. President Mwanawasa said electorates were more important than UPND and other parties. "Electorates should not be taken for granted... The Nangoma election is a lesson that people are not interested in politics any longer," he said. President Mwanawasa advised political parties to stop politicking and move towards working together for the development of the country. He said he needed the contribution of all the professionals in the country in his efforts towards developing the nation. President Mwanawasa re-appointed Shepande after winning the Nangoma parliamentary seat on July 15. (IRIN / The Post, Lusaka)

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