Zambia’s constitutional Groundhog Day: why national debate about constitutional reform is not going away anytime soon

Zambia’s constitutional Groundhog Day: why national debate about constitutional reform is not going away anytime soon

Since independence, Zambia has had five major constitutional amendments (an average of one every 10 years), a fact that has raised concerns about the country’s constitutional foundations. The constitution has been made a campaign issue in every presidential election since Zambia’s return to multiparty politics in the 1990s. In recent years, constitutional reform has become increasingly politicised and intransigent. The latest constitutional amendment, announced in January 2016, offered Zambians provisions that had long formed part of their aspirations and demands. Why then was the 2016 constitution recently defeated in a national referendum?

This policy briefing demonstrates how the interests of citizens have continually been placed behind the interests of Zambia’s political elite, including in the 2016 referendum.
 
Recommendations:
  • political parties should collaborate to find consensus before undertaking constitutional amendments. The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) highlights that a country’s constitution should enjoy popular legitimacy, and major amendments and revisions should not be undertaken lightly. Zambia highlights the dangers of politicising such a foundational aspect of any democracy
  • referendums should not be held concurrently with national general elections. Zambia’s 2016 referendum clearly suffered due to the broader political environment, ultimately failing to secure the minimum turnout required to legally validate the final outcome
  • sufficient time should be allocated to sensitise citizens ahead of a national referendum. Clearly, less than six months was insufficient notice for Zambians, as demonstrated by the low turnout and significant number of rejected (spoilt) ballots
  • double-barrelled referendum questions should be avoided. Keep questions simple. The 2016 Zambian referendum question fails on both counts here, and the outcomes are evident
  • the symbols used for ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ should be easy to understand. Using an eye for ‘Yes’ and an ear for ‘No’ proved contentious and confusing in the 2016 referendum
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