Zambia's influential civil society group, the Oasis Forum, has declined an offer from President Levy Mwanawasa to sit on a Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) to draft what will be Zambia's fourth constitution since independence in 1964.
Mwanawasa has named 41 people to the CRC, drawn from the labour movement, some political parties and sections of the media. The commission, led by prominent lawyer Willa Mung'omba, will "examine and recommend the elimination of provisions which are perceived to be discriminatory in the constitution," a government gazette said at the weekend.
But the Oasis Forum, an umbrella body comprising the country's main churches, NGOs and the Law Association of Zambia, argue the only way to have a constitution that will stand the test of time is through a representative constituent assembly producing a document people can take ownership of.
Responding to the boycott of the CRC, Mwanawasa said: "They have exercised their democratic right not to participate in this important exercise. Indeed, in a democracy you cannot all have the same views."
The rejection of the CRC model by some civil society groups is largely because of concerns that Mwanawasa will play a key role in both selecting participants, and then deciding on whether to accept the commission's recommendations. NGOs have been calling for a constitution that reduces the extensive powers of the presidency and reforms the electoral law - issues Mwanawasa would likely take a keen interest in.
"If you go back to the past three constitutions, you will find that 70 percent of the brilliant recommendations that were made by the commissioners were rejected by the president as the appointing authority. No matter how many brilliant minds you put together to review the constitution again, Mwanawasa is not bound to respect those recommendations. To think [Mwanawasa and the cabinet] will suddenly be born again and put their narrow interests above those of the nation is wishful thinking," said Alfred Chanda, a constitutional law expert and head of the election monitoring NGO, the Foundation for a Democratic Process.
Mwanawasa, however, has pointed out that a fully representative constituent assembly, or a referendum, would be expensive to organise for his cash-strapped government. At 41 members, the CRC is the largest of Zambia's commissions.
The first CRC in 1972, named after veteran freedom fighter Mainza Chona, made Zambia a one party state. A 1990 commission headed by lawyer Patrick Mvunga returned the country to multiparty politics.
But the most contentious review was the last, in 1996, organised by former president Frederick Chiluba. The amendments by the 25-member commission were seen as deliberately introduced to ban the country's first president, Kenneth Kaunda, from contesting the presidency, and sparked a political crisis.
During his election campaign in 2001, Mwanawasa agreed to a more participatory review of the 1996 constitution.
Among the issues NGOs want to see addressed are the powers of the presidency. Under the present constitution Mwanawasa is the final authority on appointments to the judiciary and constitutional offices like the Electoral Commission. He can also appoint eight MPs, has immunity from court orders, can declare a state of emergency, and sets the date for elections.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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