Plans for Constitution Cause Controversy

Civil society groups threaten street protests if they do not play a key role in the constitution-making process.

Plans for Constitution Cause Controversy

Civil society groups threaten street protests if they do not play a key role in the constitution-making process.

Just a month after the establishment by ZANU-PF and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, MDC, of an inclusive government the new government appears to be on a collision course with civil society groups over plans to bring into force a new constitution.

President Robert Mugabe said in his birthday interview broadcast on state television on February 21 that the so-called Kariba document – devised by six politicians from the country’s three main political parties on a house boat on Kariba Lake last year –

would be used as a working draft for the constitution.

“We shall all look at [the Kariba draft] and when we are all satisfied it shall be put to the people in a referendum. If the people say yes, the draft will be allowed to pass through parliament,” he said.

It had been agreed that the referendum should be held within 18 to 24 months and that an election would be held in about two years, Mugabe said.

The new constitution will replace the one negotiated at the time of the country’s independence 29 years ago at Lancaster House in London as part of a peace agreement ending years of civil war. The original negotiations lasted less than four months.

According to the power-sharing agreement drafted by the six politicians the new constitution-making process will be spearheaded by parliament and the draft will be subjected to nationwide public hearings.

Civil society groups are vehemently opposed to the proposal and are threatening to launch street protests if the politicians attempt to "hijack" the constitution-making process. They believe public representatives, not politicians, should direct the process – and claim politicians are attempting to foist the Kariba document on the public, which, they maintain, is undemocratic and at odds with oft-repeated opposition promises that the process will be people-driven.

The National Constitutional Assembly, NCA, a broad alliance of opposition parties, church groups, trades unions and civil society organisations formed in 1997 to highlight what they believed to be the shortcomings of the amended Lancaster House Constitution, and now agitating for constitutional reform, says the proposed process detailed in Article 6 of the power-sharing agreement is not people driven.

"The NCA has developed an alternative proposal of a genuine process which has been endorsed by the majority of civil society," NCA chairman Dr Lovemore Madhuku, a constitutional law expert and law professor at the University of Zimbabwe, told IWPR. The imposition on 11.9 million people of a constitution drafted by six politicians is undemocratic, he maintains. The NCA points out that the 19 constitutional amendments passed since Zimbabwe's independence in 1980 have had the effect of concentrating power in the hands of the president.

The working draft Madhuku wants used was created by means of countrywide consultations held by the NCA in 2000 in parallel with the government’s constitutional commission, which produced the proposal that was rejected by Zimbabweans in a national referendum that year. The former proposes a reduction in the powers of the president, a limit to his term of office and a scaled-down cabinet.

"If the all-inclusive government insists on the Kariba process that will be enough evidence that they are not interested in a democratic and people-driven constitution," said Mudkhuku.

Officials maintain that Madhuku's concerns are unfounded because the Kariba draft will be subjected to public hearings by hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans.

However, Madhuku said that "ZANU-PF may well produce a constitution which appears to address the concerns of the people but its main concern is power”.

Under the current constitution, there have been several policy flip-flops. In 1987, the post of prime minister was scrapped in favour of that of an executive president. This year it was reinstated to accommodate MDC leader Morgan Tsvangirai in the new all-inclusive government.

The upper chamber of parliament, the Senate, was also abolished in 1987 but was unilaterally reinstated by Mugabe in 2005 in a typical "jobs-for-the-boys" move to accommodate more gravy train hangers-on.

Madhuku warned that leaving the constitution-making process in the hands of politicians could lead to the current government being in office for another five years.

"The NCA position is that the [new] government is a transitional government whose lifespan must not exceed 18 months," Madhuku said. "We note that there are many in the government who want to have this arrangement last for a five-year period. Zimbabweans must not allow this."

He pointed out that the current government is already far bigger than the size provided for in the existing constitution and maintained that the size “is unsustainable for our country”, warning future international aid will just be used to “finance this huge infrastructure".

Madhuku expressed other concerns about the new government, pointing out that “political detainees and women’s rights activists remain in unlawful custody”.

"At his inauguration the prime minister promised their release within 'a day or week'. Not only did this not happen, more people were arrested, including [MDC treasurer general] Roy Bennett," Madhuku said.

"The parties in the government continue to quarrel over appointments such as those of permanent secretaries, provincial governors, the governor of the Reserve Bank and the attorney general. Does this country deserve a huge, ineffective and quarrelling administration? For this reason, the NCA wishes to mobilise the people to remain alert to the transitional nature of this arrangement."

Chipo Sithole is the pseudonym of an IWPR-trained journalist in Zimbabwe.
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