Interest groups give people a voice: Zambian constitution

Image: Flickr, Office Holidays
Image: Flickr, Office Holidays

Interest groups can act as opposition agents when influencing government. Hence, political parties practise opposition politics, but interest groups do, too. This is happening in Zambia, where interest groups are questioning the current constitutional review process the fourth since independence from the UK in October 1964.

Interest groups are fed-up with the ‘bastardisation’ of the constitution. Joe Komakoma, a representative of the advocacy network Oasis Forum, says: ‘Previously, most of the recommendations by the previous constitutional review commissions were rejected. That is why we want a people-driven document to live the test of time.’

Gender groups are adamant that minority rights, such as those of women, children and HIV positive persons should be included in the Bill of Rights.

Opposition towards the review process started in earnest in August last year when a federated pro-gender non-governmental organisations’ co-ordinating committee filed an injunction restraining President Levy Mwanawasa’s review commission from starting with hearings on the process. However, the court could not issue an injunction against the state after the process had already started. The women could not raise the money to continue with litigation. This, nonetheless, shows the importance interest groups attach to halting the process.

In addition, interest groups are rejecting the process because of concerns that most of the Constitutional Review Commission members are presidential appointees, entrenching the president’s power and raising questions about the commission’s impartiality, transparency and accountability.

The interest groups are lobbying for a more representative constituent assembly. To achieve this, the Oasis Forum has sketched a fivepoint constitutional reform ‘roadmap’, indicating the importance of a constituent assembly to be a ‘people’s assembly’ of 650 representatives.

Regrettably, the Zambian government has rejected the constituent assembly and, according to Zambian law, only the cabinet has the power to adopt a national constitution and send it to parliament for enactment a sign that the executive is not in tune with the people’s wishes. What is required to change this legislation is a referendum preceded by a census in which 50% of eligible voters participate. With a projected cost of 26m, Zambia cannot afford it. Government argues that the election of the 650 representatives would take about three years, making it highly unfeasible.

The Law Association of Zambia disagrees. It says the 2000 national census could be used for a national referendum. Minister of Justice George Kunda rebutted by stating that the census must be current for the purposes of a referendum. He also warned the Oasis Forum that their lobbying around the review process ‘borders on treason’. This is an indication that politicians in southern Africa look towards interest groups with fear and mistrust.

Nonetheless, if the advocacy and vocalism of interest groups in Swaziland and Zimbabwe is anything to go by, it is clear they will not sit idly by. If the leadership of a country is willing to condemn the normal response of the people as treason, it shows there is something seriously wrong with democracy because the leadership is equating criticism with rebellion and coups d’état.

Instead of creating a stable constitutional process, the review process is doing the opposite. But the review process is a sign that interest groups are alive and kicking in developing countries.

It also shows that interest group opposition is increasingly used as a means through which citizens express their political aspirations in southern Africa.

The ‘roadmap’ shows that interest groups are not only playing an oppositional role; they are also generating concrete plans that could facilitate the process to an alternative policy. Interest groups should lobby for a streamlined referendum process, which will have a positive impact on governance. This will make the Zambian electoral process more user-friendly and entrench democracy. It might also lend more credibility and legitimacy to the interest groups’ oppositional efforts with a positive outcome on the review process.