Saturday, December 06, 2008

Unsettling extension

Unsettling extension
Written by Editor

The proposal by the National Constitutional Conference (NCC) secretariat for an extension of their mandate by 12 months is unsettling. We say unsettling because we feel the initial period that was given to the NCC from inception - September 10, 2007 to September 2009 - is enough to complete its very expensive work.

The NCC was constituted under an Act of Parliament of 2007 to examine, debate and adopt proposals to alter the draft Constitution submitted by the Willa Mung'omba Constitution Review Commission (CRC). The Mung'omba draft report recommended that the Constitution should be adopted through the Constituent Assembly and when the issue of forming the NCC arose, various stakeholders, including the Oasis Forum, opposed the idea.

They insisted that the constitution should be adopted through the Constituent Assembly. However, the MMD government maintained its stance over the NCC and a bill was drafted after some consultation.

Some sections of the Church and some civil society organisations accepted the idea reluctantly but called for further consultation over the matter. The people's fears were that the bill, which was formulated on the Zambia Centre for Interparty Dialogue (ZCID) road map, advocated piecemeal amendments of the Constitution and reserved the right of Parliament to debate and amend the recommendations of the constitutional conference. The stakeholders felt that the bill was retrogressive as it merely limited the NCC to making recommendations to the Minister of Justice.

However, the government ignored the people's wishes and went ahead to take the NCC bill to Parliament. When civil society threatened to demonstrate over the constitution-review process, then justice minister George Kunda - now Vice-President - accused the Oasis Forum of derailing the process and said the intention of the government was to achieve a comprehensive review of the Constitution in a less costly manner. The bill sailed through Parliament and late president Levy Mwanawasa accented to it, making it law.

Stakeholders such as the Non-Governmental Organisations Coordinating Council (NGOCC), the Zambia Episcopal Conference (ZEC), the Council of Churches in Zambia (CCZ), Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia (EFZ) and the Patriotic Front (PF) boycotted the NCC. Nonetheless, the NCC - with about 496 members, was then set up. At the time, we made it very clear that the NCC was not for consensus building or a negotiated approach to constitution review.

We had said it was simply a mechanism for the deception of people. We had a problem with composition of the NCC and we stated that there would be no real participation by the people but that what would be there would be the MMD's participation, its dominance or hegemony over the whole process.

The NCC then commenced its sittings on December 19 and the rest, as they say, is history. Now it is unsettling to hear that this Conference wants an extension of 12 months. According to the NCC's letter addressed to the General Purposes Committee on November 17, 2008, they had lost over eight months due to various factors such as the initial preparation during the setting up of the Conference, president Mwanawasa's death and the elections.

Valid as their reasons might be, we feel the demand for an extension by 12 months is unsettling and raises a lot of questions about its efficiency, effectiveness and orderliness.

The NCC should be able to finish its work within the stipulated time because the country cannot afford to buy time on the Constitution. People have hoped for a new constitution for a long time and actually offered alternative road maps which indicated that the constitution could be finalised within a shorter period of time but the government decided to go its way.

We were even recently assured by Kunda that the document would be ready on time so there should be no need for the NCC to continue to 2010. Setbacks will always be there in life but there is need for us to plan in such a way that we meet our set goals. What guarantee do we have that there will be no setbacks in 2009, which will lead them to asking for an extension to 2011 - the year of general elections?

We need a lot of seriousness on this matter because the constitution, which is being formulated is not for the MMD or an individual. This is a document for the people and it is needed urgently.

When the Oasis Forum presented an alternative road map through which to adopt the constitution, it was rejected on grounds that it would be an expensive exercise. The government came up with a 'cheaper' way of enacting the constitution by forming the NCC.

A lot of concern has been raised over the money that is being spent on this body. According to the 2008 budget, in excess of K300 billion was allocated to the NCC and definitely they will receive an allocation next year since their mandate spans up to September 2009. This is understandable but to think of another allocation in 2010 is unsettling.

Where will the country get the money? In view of the global financial crisis, the country is likely to see reduced revenue in form of taxes. This crisis will lead to job losses thus reducing the number of taxpayers, the country might not get as much money in aid as the developed countries are very much hit by the credit crunch and are trying to bail out their own companies.

The country might see reduced investment which could have helped to create more jobs and the economy is not likely to perform as projected. This precarious situation calls for a lot of foresightedness, prudence, thriftiness and good planning to ensure that the little money that the country has is spent wisely.

It will be unwise for us as a country to take the route of "business as usual" when the entire world is gearing up and finding ways of mitigating the effects of the global economic meltdown. And it will be unfair to continue milking the taxpayers who at the same time have to struggle with the rising cost of living - high prices of food, rentals, fuel and so on and so forth.

Such an extension should only be tolerated if members of the NCC decide to go for 12 months to serve the country - without any allowances being paid to them. As long as it involves the hard-earned taxpayers’ money, an extension will be difficult to support. It is sad that in these hard economic times, people can entertain such very expensive schemes.

We have always called for an acceptable constitution-making process and we have always encouraged consensus in the process. And we strongly feel that the country can have the new constitution by September 2009. Those sitting on the NCC should ensure that they deliver a good constitution that meets the people's aspirations. They should ensure that the defeat that people suffered over the Constituent Assembly is avenged, is reversed. This requires a high sense of selflessness, maturity and humility.

We need to remember that our people wanted a new constitution before the 2006 elections and the government refused. The government pushed the deadline to 2009 and it will be immoral to push it to 2010. Everything has a limit and people should not be pushed further than they already have. Pushing the deadline further is unacceptable. We need a new constitution not later than 2009.

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