(formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

Mwanawasa agrees to constituent assembly

[Zambia] Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa

Zambia's President Levy Mwanawasa has bowed to demands for a constituent assembly to review the country's constitution.

Mwanawasa, who had favoured appointing a Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) said on Sunday he would introduce the required bills in parliament to pave the way for a constituent assembly after previously rejecting the idea, saying it would be too expensive to put in place.

A constituent assembly would be made up of all members of parliament and from a shortlist of interested parties and NGOs, thus perceived as being "people-owned". Once the constituent assembly has been selected, a constitutional law dictates that a referendum is necessary for obtaining a mandate for the constituent assembly.

However, the constitution also calls for a population census before the referendum to establish how many voters there are.

Under pressure from a large section of civil society and some of his own cabinet ministers, Mwanawasa on Sunday told a meeting of commissioners due to be sworn into the CRC that he would send bills to parliament to repeal laws that stand in the way of forming a constituent assembly.

"If there are laws in the present constitution that impede what people want [a constituent assembly], I will pass a bill over to parliament to amend such laws. If the bill to amend such laws fails, you will know who the enemy is," he said, referring to members of parliament.

It is unclear when this will happen as the commissioners for the CRC are due to be sworn in on Wednesday.

Mwanawasa's undertaking has been cautiously welcomed by the NGO umbrella group, the Oasis Forum, which has lobbied for changes to be made through a constituent assembly. Their fears are that Mwanawasa and his cabinet, which would appoint the CRC, would be able to reject recommendations not in their favour.

Among the key issues civil society groups want addressed are the extent of the president's currently wide-ranging powers.

"There's a need for him to make a separate statement in print so that he does not turn around in future and say 'I did not say that,'" Father Ignatius Mwebe of the Oasis Forum told IRIN.

Meanwhile, Women for Change, an NGO which is part of the Oasis Forum, has appealed to Zambians country-wide to continue an anti-CRC campaign involving the honking of car horns and the wearing of green ribbons that started last Friday.

"We want people to continue honking and wearing their green ribbons every Friday in order to send a clear message to Mr Mwanawasa that we want a people-driven constitution. Last week, people honked very well and I think the campaign started well."

Police have threatened to arrest and charge those participating in the campaign, but so far have not arrested anyone.

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