Constitutional hot potatoes

By Richard Lee | January 14th, 2014

In all the justified furore about the absurd arrest of a Zambian opposition leader for referring to President Sata as a sweet potato (or defaming him if you have (a) lost touch with reality or (b) are in the upper echelons of the police or ruling Patriotic Front), a crucial issue has been largely overlooked.

If Zambia had a more up-to-date and progressive constitution then Frank Bwalya would never have been detained and charged for airing his opinion because his fundamental right to freedom of expression would be enshrined in the country’s supreme law – and would trump the need to protect Sata’s thin skin. Or indeed the thin skin of whoever happens to be in State House.

But Zambia does not have a more up-to-date and progressive constitution because Sata and his government have successfully delayed the drafting and ratification process for years. Indeed, Sata is currently refusing to publish the final draft purportedly to “protect the masses from those that have hijacked this noble process.”

It is an excuse as thin as his skin.

An unprecedented coalition of civil society groups has been demanding the release of the final draft for months, arguing that Zambians should be allowed to debate it openly and then vote on it in a referendum. But clearly there are provisions within the final draft that Sata and his cronies do not like – perhaps including an end to the nonsense about ‘defaming the president’.

Indeed, the best way to ‘protect the masses’ is to enact a new constitution that does just that – by enshrining all their fundamental rights and freedoms. There is no better protection for citizens against abuse than a progressive supreme law.

So while the South African Sunday Times was correct to give Sata’s its ‘idiot of the week’ award, it should not have given it to him for potato-gate but rather for the trying to bury the country’s new constitution. Especially after he promised on the campaign trail to enact a new constitution within 90 days of coming to power. And after regular assurances from his minions (sorry ministers) that the government was committed to a people-driven constitution.

Because what is the worse crime – referring to someone as a sweet potato or lying to an entire country about something as critical as the constitution?

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