Last Thursday, the 11th of August, Zambians went to the ballot to vote for a new president for the fifth time in 10 years. However, in addition to voting in a local and national election the Zambian people have also been asked to make some important decisions about their constitution. The Zambian constitution dates from 1964, when, like the first Kenyan constitution it was negotiated with the British at Lancaster House. Unlike in Kenya, this constitution was never revoked and all further changes to the constitution were amendments of this document, the latest of which was passed on the 5th of January 2016.
President Lungu of the PF party retained his presidency but the outcome of the referendum is still unknown.
The decision to hold the referendum on the same day as the general election has been controversial due to concerns that decisions about the constitution will be influenced by party politics. The Grand Coalition, which was formed in 2013 to campaign for a new constitution has argued that decisions as important as those about the constitution should be taken in a calmer, less partisan atmosphere. In addition, the focus of the press and public debate on the presidential election has led to fears that the issues around the referendum may not be well understood. The Electoral Commission of Zambia has created documents explaining the proposed changes to the constitution, including one in cartoon form.
The referendum question is phrased as follows:
‘Do you agree to the amendment to the constitution to enhance the Bill of Rights contained in part 3 of the constitution and to repeal and place Article 79 of the Constitution of Zambia?’
The changes proposed were laid out as follows:
The bill has been criticised for extending the rights of the executive rather than curbing them. However, the revision also means that the constitution will now include civil, political, economic, social, cultural, environmental, further and special rights. Page 7 of the cartoon booklet (see below) links cultural rights to language rights and states that ‘Cultural Rights relate to art and culture. The objective of these rights is to guarantee that people and communities have an access to culture and can participate in the culture of their choice.’ By increasing the number of rights guaranteed to its people, Zambia is following an international trend which has seen an increase in the average number of rights provided for in constitutions since the mid-twentieth century. The bill also specifies that redress for contraventions of the Bill of Rights can be sought in the constitutional court. If the referendum vote is ‘yes’ it will be interesting to see how Zambians exercise their right to culture in the coming years.
NOTE: 22 August 2016. The changes to the constitution were not passed. Although the majority of people who voted, voted yes, the overall turnout was too low. The threshold for changes to the constitution is 50% of registered voters.