LUSAKA: President Rupiah Banda starts a two-day official visit to Botswana on August 9-10 clearly concerned that Catholic bishops have rejected Zambia's draft constitution, which is expected to form the basis of next year's elections.
Elected in a by-election to replace president Levy Mwanawasa who died after suffering a stroke in August 2008, Banda will in 2011 be seeking re-election, which will qualify him for his first five-year term in office. But in a move that is sure to reopen old wounds between the church and the state, Catholic prelates have rejected the new constitution on the ground that it is not people-driven and cannot stand the test of time. They say that the National Constitutional Conference (NCC), which had been tasked with coming up with the constitution, had "failed to meet the aspirations of the Zambian people".
In a bid to reduce, among other things, the powers of a sitting president, Zambia has been bogged down in unsuccessful constitution-making process since the end of Kenneth Kaunda's one-party rule in 1991. The products of two previous attempts to come up with an acceptable blueprint have been unsatisfactory. The last in 1996 must rank as a monumental failure, because government threw out more than 50 percent of the recommendations. The latest draft released in late June is the product of a process that had been on going since 2007.
But on July 21 the influential Zambia Episcopal Conference (ZEC) - that brings together the country's 14 Catholic bishops - dismissed the draft as having succeeded only to "violate most of the people's desires" as expressed to the Constitution Commission whose findings were the basis of NCC deliberations.
ZEC's outright rejection has led to fears of renewed friction between the country's biggest church and President Banda's Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) government, which is under intense pressure from opposition parties. Relations between the two have not been the most cordial of late and the under lying reason has been disagreements on the constitution-making process. ZEC has insisted that in view of past failures, politicians and government officials should stand aside and allow a people-driven constitution to emerge. Government has been protective of its role and has wanted an input.
It responded by creating the 600-member NCC comprising all Members of Parliament (MPs) and delegates from a cross section of society, including the ZEC and like-minded NGOs. The ZEC and its allies declined and stayed away, citing the dominance of politicians and government-related delegates in the NCC and what it said was the ambiguity of the whole process. It also maintained that any tinkering with the peoples' wishes as expressed to the Constitution Commission, which formed the basis of NCC deliberations, would result in a constitution of questionable legitimacy. "We have said time and again that content for the Constitution has never been a real problem. The people of Zambia are very clear and consistent with what they want but they have always been let down by those in power..."was the bishops' central argument.
ZEC maintained its stance that the draft was of questionable legitimacy since it departed from what the people recommended to the last Constitution Commission and several others before it.
While accepting that the NCC draft does have some positive elements citing, among others, the recognition of the rights of the visually impaired and the deaf, the inclusion of the rights of the unborn child and others, the Catholic bishops criticise it for leaving out certain fundamental rights such as those to shelter and housing, food, water and sanitation.
"These are cardinal and fundamental rights which must be enjoyed and the state should not take them
They also raised the issue of the "much talked about" referendum on critical issues that have been referred to that process. They observed that its place in the constitution-making process remains unclear, creating an ambiguity that makes the "future of the whole process bleak".
Bishops also took issue with the 40 days allotted to the public to study and react, describing the period as "unrealistically short" especially given the absence of a user friendly or systematic manner of forwarding submissions and also noted that availability and access to the draft itself leaves much to be desired.
The bishops further questioned what more submissions could be expected when the people had already made them to the Constitution Commission and they had been disregarded.
"Even if people still reiterate what they have said, what guarantee do they have that what they will submit this time will be listened to and incorporated into the constitution by the same NCC? "
Among the clauses the bishops said "fell victim to vested interests" within the NCC, is the proposed expansion of the Bill of Rights to include Social and Economic Rights; the requirement that the President be elected by a majority vote, the selection of Cabinet ministers from outside Parliament and the reduction of Presidential powers. They further criticised the document for failing to provide for a decent period of transition after presidential elections, especially in the event of new president taking office; the unrealistic expansion of the composition of the National Assembly without due regard to cost and current infrastructure; the creation of so many commissions most of which are through Presidential Appointments; the elimination of the provision for citizens in a constituency to censure and recall a non-performing MP.
The Catholic bishops also contend that the draft constitution "is too bulky, wordy, too long and complicated for an ordinary citizen" and they put this down to the inclusion of provisions that are rightly for subsidiary legislation.
"A Constitution should normally contain only fundamental principles that guide the nation on how it wants to conduct or regulate its affairs," they said. The bishops' observations were the first public reaction to the draft; it pulled few punches and maintained their opposition to the process. "From what we are now witnessing, this NCC will go down in the history of Zambia as yet another of those Constitution-making processes that gobbled billions and billions while a people-driven Constitution continues to elude us as a nation...It has become a moral issue," they observed, concluding "... the current process has failed to meet the aspirations of the Zambian people."
Coming from the Catholic bishops who have been at odds with the authorities in the recent past such a conclusion cannot have failed to raise eyebrows in official and ruling party circles. The issue very clearly promises to produce more sparks. (Sila Press Agency)