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Protestors demand constituent assembly to vet draft constitution

Thousands of Zambian demonstrators, many wearing green ribbons and carrying fresh-cut branches as a sign of protest, marched on parliament on Tuesday to insist that a constituent assembly be convened to pass a new constitution for the country.

The demonstrators, ranging from university students to the clergy and opposition party leaders, braved soaring temperatures to hand out petitions to MPs demanding a bill be passed creating a constituent assembly.

They also want the new constitution in place before next year's presidential election - a target President Levy Mwanawasa has said would be impossible to meet.

The protest, called by pressure group Oasis Forum, passed by peacefully under the watchful gaze of police.

"The government has to listen to the people," said Patricia Banji, a member of the United Party for National Development, the main opposition party. "With the impact of today's demonstrations, if Levy is a democrat, he has to listen."

Ms Banji, a middle-class businesswoman, had been outside parliament since early morning. "I am ready to sleep here. We don't want violence, but to be heard," she said. "If it means sleeping here, we will do so."

University of Zambia students had earlier carried a mock coffin and conducted a mock funeral to symbolise the fall of Mwanawasa's government over the constitutional review process.

"We also forced [former president Frederick] Chiluba to abandon his ill-fated third-term bid. So, definitely, government has to listen," said a student in reference to the successful protest by the Oasis Forum in 2001.

Mwanawasa, who had earlier disparagingly described the protestors as "loafers", has insisted that a constituent assembly would be too expensive an exercise for cash-strapped Zambia.

A Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) set up by the government delivered a draft constitution earlier this year, which, among other provisions, recommended that a president must be elected by more than 50 percent of the vote.

The opposition are concerned by Mwanawasa's rejection of what has become known as the "50 plus one" recommendation in favour of a first-past-the-post election, and that he might also ignore amendments diluting the powers of the presidency.

Mwanawasa narrowly won controversial elections in 2001 with just 29 percent of the vote. Acknowledging civil society calls for constitutional reform he set up the CRC, whose draft document was finalised earlier this year.

Zambia has had four constitutional reviews since independence in 1964.

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:

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