Zambia: People Power Puts President Lungu’s Third Mandate Ambition on Hold

The dust is gradually settling in Zambia over a recent attempt by President Edgar Lungu and his ruling Patriotic Front, PF Party to amend the country’s constitution with provisions that if adopted in the end, would allow him to seek a third term in office. The proposed changes contained in a document referred to as Bill N0. 10 has drawn widespread criticism and attacks from the opposition, the Church and other components of the civil society in the Southern African country.

The idea of Bill N0. 10 was mooted at a National Dialogue Forum following the Siavonga meeting held on July 12, 2018 where stakeholders agreed that the 2016 amended Constitution be fine-tuned further. The 2016 constitution amendment bill had addressed a variety of issues concerning the demands of citizens to include a provision which spelled out that if a candidate for president did not secure over   50 per cent of valid votes cast, there will be a runoff, and the provision for a running mate to a presidential candidate.

This amendment also removed the uncertainty associated with the date of elections because of the provision that the general elections would thenceforth be held on the second Thursday of August in every election year. Of particular interest to the people was the creation of the post of vice president because it allowed Zambians to know in advance the successor of the president should the highest office in the land become vacant for one reason or the other. This made the 2016 constitution admirable.

For a country that had lost two sitting heads of state in the recent past and their replacement deemed to be costly because of the organization of presidential by-elections, the introduction of the post of vice president in 2016 was a milestone worth celebrating in Zambia.

According to the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) 344 million Kwachas was spent to conduct the 2015 presidential by-election following the death of Zambia’s fifth President, Michael Chilufya Sata in October 2014. A similar fate had befallen Zambia in August 2008 when the country’s third President, Levy Patrick Mwanawasa died while in office.

However, the holding of general elections in 2016 exposed a few weaknesses in the just amended constitution. The few gaps spotted could easily go unnoticed, given that the amendments would necessarily require a period of testing and adaptation. Rather, the few shortcomings appeared to present a window of opportunity to some politicians, particularly those of the ruling PF Party to introduce further changes, some of which have been widely interpreted to mean that they have intentions of clinging to power against the wishes and aspirations of the people and existing constitutional provisions.

The resumption of Parliament on Tuesday June 23 was the opportunity government exploited to table the highly contentious Bill N0. 10 for a second and subsequent third reading leading to its inclusion into the constitution. Disputes around Bill N0. 10 appear to have started right from the moment of the holding of the National Dialogue Forum convened by the government of President Lungu.

According government officials, Bill 10 seeks to revise some provisions of the constitution such as adjusting the preamble to reaffirm the Christian character of Zambia, revise the principles and values of the Constitution and revise the electoral system for elections into the National Assembly.

Other changes included revising the period for dissolution of the National Assembly, the period of hearing and determination of petitions challenging the files of  candidates for presidential elections, the manner of election of mayors and council chairpersons, establishing the office of deputy minister; and the composition of the cabinet.

The changes also touched on the provisions relating to the establishment of commissions, the payment of pension benefits and retention on the payroll, membership of Members of Parliament in councils, establishing the Drug Enforcement Commission as the Anti-drug, Economic and Financial Crimes Agency and redefining its functions as a national security service.

Issues like the functions of the Public Protector, the functions of the Bank of Zambia, the functions of the Auditor- General were also modified. A provision in the revision bill including the possibility of a coalition government; according to this proposal, a candidate for president who failed to secure at least 50% of the vote in the first round, could forge a coalition with another candidate whose score could take him or her across the 50% mark, enabling both party to avoid a runoff and form a coalition government.

Public outcry against some of the proposals was quick in coming. The government was forced to make some initial concessions like suppressing the provisions on the coalition government and the inclusion of positions of vice ministers in the cabinet. Despite that compromise decision, key stakeholders continued to oppose the entire Bill N0. 10. Opposition became louder when it was clear the bill would make it to Parliament for a second and subsequent third reading when the National Assembly reconvened on June 23.

On June 12, the government published Gazette No. 534 Constitution Amendment Bill, 2019 with proposed Parliamentary Amendments. According to Justice Minister, Given Lubinda, the Gazette was used as a tool to communicate the contents of Bill number 10.

Barrister John Sangwa, Zambia (C) Zambia Reports

A well-known Zambian Constitutional Advocate, John Sangwa reacting to news that Bill N0. 10 was going to Parliament for examination said the whole exercise was not opportune.

“The constitution was amended in 2016, and my point is that it is too early to start changing it. We must give it time to be tested and to see how well it will perform. If we see that it does not function well, only then we can amend it. Even the process of amendment must be a consensus with interested parties and not just one political party. So, my point is that it is too early to try to change the constitution,” he said.

He regretted that the government of President Lungu was trying to use the constitutional amendment for political ends in the runup to the August 2021 Presidential Poll.

“The goal is to try and use the constitution to favor the party in power ahead of the election due in August next year. My argument has been that you cannot use the constitution for that particular purpose. As far as the law is concerned, the current president is not eligible to stand for election next year because he has been elected twice already. There are some people in his political party that believe he should stand and are determined to make sure that he stands irrespective of what the constitution says,” Barrister Sangwa told Timescape.

The legal luminary was not alone in considering the very introduction of Bill N0. 10 as an attack on Zambia’s nascent democracy. The President of the country’s main opposition party, the United Party for National Development (UPND), Hakainda Hichilema described the proposed amendment as a smokescreen meant to create room for the ruling PF Party to perpetuate its stay in power.

Hakainde Hichilema, President of Zambia's main Opposition Party, UNPD (C) BBC

In the first place, the making of a constitution is not reserved for a political party in office or indeed political parties in office, constitution making is the preserve of the people of a particular country, in this case, the people of Zambia.

“The party in office is trying to tilt constitution-making to suit its own interest, not the interest of the citizens of Zambia. The process engaged does not include all the stakeholders and when the process is wrong, the content cannot be right. Just look at the content, it has a lot of flaws. To be honest, this constitutional amendment Bill N0. 10 is intended to perpetuate the stay of the party in office in government basically, which is against the democratic tenets of our country. It is fair to say that the whole structure, the whole coinage of it is couched to return Zambia back to a one-party state which we rejected in 1991, a system put in place at independence under president Kaunda,” Mr. Hichilema told Timescape.

 Even moderate stakeholders who consent to the fact that some cleaning necessary in the 2016 amendment of the constitution have ended up admitting that the whole purpose of such a modification had been derailed by the party in power. By introducing provisions not hitherto agreed upon by the critical mass of the country, the President of Transparency International- Zambia, Mr. Reuben Lifuka told Timescape that the government Party created suspicions.

Reuben Lifuka, President of Transparency International- Zambia (C) Daily Revelation Zambia

The purpose of Bill N0. 10 was to deal with the lacuna that were in the 2016 amendment. So, the government’s commitment was essentially to clean-up on a few of the articles which were problematic such as the interpretation of 14 days for petition of presidential election and having clarity on the role of mayors among other things. However, what we have noted is that through bill N0. 10 government has introduced new articles and the question is how consensus was dealt with around these new articles. Here the concern is that bill N0. 10 seems to serve just a very narrow political agenda of the ruling party. Some of the proposals that have been made for instance is to do away with the challenge of the nomination of a candidate and the speculation is that, that has been done because there are all these bigger questions whether the president can run having been sworn into office twice,” Mr. Lifuka fumed.

Consensus against the passage of Bill N0. 10 has gathered momentum and from the opinions expressed here and there, many Zambians seem militantly opposed to several provisions there-in. Several civil society organizations, including women’s groups and the Church. Calls for the total withdrawal of the bill have been getting ever more shouting.

The Secretary General of Zambia’s Episcopal Conference of Bishops, Father Cleophas Lungu expressed the frustration of the Church with regards to what he perceived as total exclusion of key stakeholders in the amendment process.

Rev Father Cleophas Lungu, Secretary General of Zambia Episcopal Conference of Bishops (C) Lusaka Times

He noted that: “The bishops feel that there wasn’t wide and sufficient consultations with the people especially that there was no room given to the people to have their input. It was just a meeting of the representative of the people at the national level called national dialogue with consultations with the grassroots. On the content, there are several things people have spoken time immemorial with regards to the separation of power. The bill does not contain the separation of power. It rather gives the president the power to control the judiciary and the legislature. In a country that is struggling to fully finance education and health, we believe that it is not right to have a bloated cabinet. There are many other contentions. Briefly, the bill is dividing the people rather than unite”.

The Nongovernmental Organizations Coordination Council (NGOCC), the Women’s movement which has been advocating a people-driven constitution that will address the many shortcomings in the country’s constitutional order, also found issues with Bill N0. 10 in its original form and believes that together with the proposed Parliamentary amendments highlight the many shortcomings with the whole constitution-making process.

At a press conference on Thursday June 18, NGOCC Board Chairperson Mary Mulenga said there was still need for broad-based consensus on the way forward. “we reiterate our position that Bill N0. 10 should be withdrawn in its entirety... The constitution should not be a product of coercion and manipulation; it should be a product of consensus and nation-building,” she stated.

This widespread public pushback notwithstanding, Justice Minister Mr. Lubinda told Timescape that the people were losing it all. He said rather than go wait for the constitutional amendment bill to brought into the streets, the people should contact the Members of Parliament representing their constituencies to have their say and get their inputs to count.

Given-Lubinda, Minister of Justice Zambia (C) Lusaka Times

Said he: “When there is a bill, it is debated in parliament, not outside Parliament. If there are some misgivings, they should go to their members of Parliament and ask them”.

Mr. Lubinda is not alone in seeing virtue in the exercise that is unlikely to go away, at least, not anytime soon. Constitutional Lawyer, Sakwiba Sikota told Timescape that it was unacceptable that those at variance with the enactment of Bill N0. 10 did have a fixed position on why they were against the bill.

Mr. Sikota said the initial opposition to the bill by some entities was about the content, which the stakeholders felt did not represent the views of the people. He argued that changes had since been made to accommodate those concerns.

“During the committee stage a lot of well-meaning people came and gave their views. The Parliamentary Select Committee came up with recommendations attending to the concerns raised by stakeholders, and people were happy that their views were heard,” Mr. Sikota highlighted, adding that he was surprised that certain sections of the community  just wanted to find something to oppose although the process had attempted to deal with some of the major concerns raised, a thing he said, undermined the democratic process.

“True democrats realize that the process of enacting a bill entails hanging on and debating one’s point of view and not boycotting when confronted with contrary suggestions,’’ he insisted.

As public dissent continues to grow against the enactment of Bill N0. 10, the Speaker of the National Assembly Tuesday June 23 announced that the contentious piece of legislation would be withdrawn for the time being, paving the way for the lawmakers to address other issues. Although it remains unclear what the government’s intention in temporarily taking out the bill was, what is certain is that opposition to it would continue to grow.

This view is captured in a statement made by Father Lungu to Timescape; “If the parliament that we have had listen to the people in 2016, this process will not come up now. On the other hand, if we believe that we are not in a constitutional crisis, why the rush. We believe that this is not the time to do so. We believe that the constitution as it stands now is enough guidance for the governance of the country and if there are certain things that need to be changed, let them be changed without amending the constitution”.

In the event Bill N0. 10 is returned to the Select Committee before the end of the current Parliamentary Session somewhere in August, it would be sure to still meet mixed fortunes as government requires a 2/3rd vote to have it sail through. Unfortunately, the ruling PF Party does not have the magic numbers to do it without the cooperation of the country’s opposition. Some in the civil society have all the same expressed fears that some opposition MPs could be bribed into supporting the exercise.

Although Father Lungu shared the same fears, he advised that such an approach would likely set the grounds for chaos.

“Well, I can predict.  It is possible that the government can use the arrogance of power, number and the arrogance of money to buy off one or two or more Members of Parliament, but what we are saying is that that is not the way to make a constitution. The only way as the bishops have  advised is that before even tabling the bill in the House of Parliament let there be genuine dialogue, genuine engagement and when people have agreed with the bill outside Parliament it can be tabled in the House of Parliament”.