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Referendum: Missed opportunity for Zambians

IT WAS meant to open a window for Zambia to change its laws and provide more rights for its citizens, but when the referendum vote was announced by the Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ) chairperson Esau Chulu on Friday, the numbers fell far short of the threshold. The process was a huge failure.
For the handful of observers, civic and church leaders, and PF party officials present at the announcement, the disappointment was evident.
Normally, a national population census is supposed to precede a referendum to determine how many people are eligible to vote (that is those have attained 18 years), but this requirement was circumvented, for obvious reasons – there was no time or money to undertake such a costly exercise.
The Commission, however, used estimate figures provided by the Central Statistical Office, which put the number of eligible voters at 7.5 million.
Hence, about 3.7 million people needed to vote for the referendum to succeed.
However, of the estimates of eligible voters at 7, 528, 091 and the minimum threshold which stood at 3, 764, 046,  only 3, 345, 471 voted and from that figure 1, 853, 559 voted Yes while 753, 549 voted No and 739, 363 were rejected votes.
Justice Chulu announced that the number of votes in the referendum held alongside the general election on August 11 had failed to reach the 50 percent threshold required by law.
According to the law, a referendum can only be validated or accepted if 50 percent of the total number of eligible voters cast their votes.
But even before the referendum was held, some people had questioned why the ECZ had put such a high threshold to determine the success of the referendum.
Prominent lawyer John Sangwa had described as “crazy” the 50 percent threshold required for a referendum to be validated, especially that it not mandatory for citizens in Zambia to vote.
United Nations (UN) resident co-ordinator Janet Rogan says it is a great shame that the threshold for the Referendum was not reached as the country has lost an opportunity to embed in the Constitution progressive rights.
Ms Rogan, who is also the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) resident representative, says Zambians have lost an opportunity to include in the constitution economic, cultural and social rights among others.
“The old Bill of Rights does have civil and political rights but not any of the others. So it makes it so much difficult. The enhanced Bill of Rights for example, would have made clear that rights for women are very important , their quality, equity of women in our society. It would have changed the influence that tradition and customary law has over the lives of women. It would have really made them equal partners in the country,” Ms Rogan says.
She, however, advises Zambians not to give up hope on their rights but look at other avenues to ensure under the new constitution, wider rights are properly embedded and taken forward.
“Rights are for everybody. Rights do not belong to political parties or civil society or the UN. They are for the people. Rights belong to people and the reason the referendum on things like these are hard to pass is because it is a very serious matter for people,” she says.
Ms Rogan laments that it will not be easy for the country to hold a free standing referendum as it is an expensive venture.
“It will not be very easy holding another free standing referendum, it is very expensive and this subject was discussed even before a decision was made to hold it [referendum] with the general elections. There were no cooperating partners who were able to step forward to say they could fund a free standing referendum. It would be very expensive for the government to do that,” Ms Rogan says.
Governance activist Reuben Lifuka says the failed referendum will result in the country having an incompatible constitution.
“For instance, in the preamble the constitution states clearly that women and men will enjoy the same equality before the law. Then we have the Bill of Rights that essentially discriminates in article 23 against women , so I think it requires  a lot of consensus building, we have to go back to the drawing board  and I hope  government will have the political will to do this as soon as possible,” he says.
Mr Lifuka feels there is need for Zambians to change the politics around the debate on the Bill of Rights.
“Right now, the bill of rights has been politicised and that is unfortunate. I hope as we go forward, we will realise the Bill of Rights  is about enhancing our own being, our liberties, our conditions of  living and our solidarity rights,” Mr Lifuka says.
He suggests government considers using the money it budgeted for a possible presidential rerun to hold another referendum.
“The fact that we have concluded the elections in the first round and I want to  believe ECZ including the donor community did prepare for the possibility of a second round,  one hopes that the donors   working with government will also make available these resources for another referendum.
“We should not wait until it is too late before we go back to a referendum and the reason is very simple, we might have a situation where government has documents which do not speak to each other,” Mr Lifuka said.
Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia (EFZ) Pukuta Mwanza is disappointed with the outcome of referendum.
Reverend Mwanza says it is unfortunate that some leaders aspiring for the presidency discouraged the electorate from voting in the referendum and yet they were promising people social and economic benefits which are in the expanded Bill of Rights.
“We know that many of our political party candidates where canvassing for votes and promising people social and economic benefits, which are same issues enshrined in the Bill of Rights. So, for somebody to aspire  for high office and promise people economic benefits, jobs, education, better environment and on the other hand encouraging people to vote No in the referendum is a serious contradiction,” Rev Mwanza observes.
He urges government to relook matter and plan for another referendum. “We know there are some donors who have been fighting this Bill of Rights because of its moral dimensions” he says.
The PF says it is not surprised the referendum failed to meet the threshold as people especially in the areas the ruling party enjoys support do not vote en masse.
Party deputy spokesperson Frank Bwalya says the vote failed for many reasons adding that in regions where people vote in numbers like Southern Province, people were told to reject the referendum.
“The UPND, HH is on record having campaigned against it, so it was clear it was not going to succeed,” Mr Bwalya says.
Mr Bwalya adds that Zambians seemingly do not attach seriousness to constitution matters compared to politics.
“When President Lungu was assenting to constitution at the Heroes Stadium early this year, very few people turned up meanwhile when the PF held its first rally  at the same stadium, it was filled to capacity.
“It is too bad the referendum has failed because we have missed an opportunity to move forward in terms of amending the Bill of Rights,” he laments.
The opposition UPND are on record having massively campaigned against the expanded Bill of Rights during the just ended general election. They told the electorate to vote No in the Referendum vote.
UPND leader Hakainde Hichilema is happy the referendum has flopped.
“We told our members not to vote for the referendum and now it has failed. We have won on the referendum,” he says.
On January 5, after a costly and laborious constitution review process that transcended three presidents and two governments, President Lungu assented to an amended constitution, allowing clauses that were generally viewed as non-contentious by majority stakeholders. These included the running mate clause and 50 percent plus one majority vote.
It was then agreed that the part containing the Bill of Rights would be adopted through a referendum.
Many people had expressed concern over the short period available to publicise the Bill of Rights and educate people on its contents, as well as sensitise the citizens on the importance of the referendum.
Another concern was that the general elections would dilute the importance of the referendum, thereby compromising its final outcome.
For now, it is back to the drawing board.

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