Columnists Features

Referendum sensitisation: Have we done justice?

EMELDA Musonda.

WITH six days to go before the referendum, which will be held alongside the general elections, the question that is probably ringing in the minds of most stakeholders is: are people well equipped to make informed choices in the poll.
From the time the proposal was made to hold the referendum alongside the general elections, debate ensued among various stakeholders.
Government, as the main proponent of the idea, raised concern on the ability of the country to hold such an expensive venture in isolation considering the many yawning economic and developmental needs.
Justifiably so, Government felt holding a referendum separately would entail the country financing two major elections within a short space of time.
It was, therefore, in the interest of making a saving that Government decided to ‘kill two birds with one stone’.
On the other hand, the opponents believe that holding the referendum at the same time as the general election will cause the former to be overshadowed.
The opponents were also concerned about the limited time for sensitisation of the general public on the referendum and the contents of the Bill of Rights.
Other concerns raised include the use of the ‘eye’ and ‘ear’ as symbols of ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ respectively and the way the referendum question is phrased, which is:
“Do you agree to the amendment to the Constitution to enhance the Bill of Rights contained in part three of the Constitution of Zambia and to repeal and replace Article 79 of the Constitution of Zambia?”
Whatever arguments were advanced, a decision had to be made. Come August 11, Zambians will not only be voting for their leaders, but also on whether the constitution should be amended to enhance the Bill of Rights.
To this effect, the government, civil society and many other stakeholders have embarked on a rigorous sensitisation campaign to enlighten the general citizenry on the referendum and the Bill of Rights.
Government has, for instance, sponsored the dissemination of the Bill of Rights across the print and electronic media for citizens to familiarise themselves with its contents.
The Electoral Commission of Zambia (ECZ), as a major stakeholder in the electoral process, has engaged different mediums to get the message of the referendum across.
The electoral body is using radio and television advertisements and discussion programmes to educate people on the subject.
ECZ is also using its online presence as well as the short messaging service to disseminate information on the referendum.
The electoral body is further taking advantage of formal gatherings in churches and schools to preach the referendum.
At the just ended 90th Zambia Agricultural and Commercial Show, ECZ, in collaboration with the Ministry of Justice, rose to the occasion to distribute copies of the current and proposed Bill of Rights to show-goers.
For the entire period of the agricultural show, 5,000 copies were distributed to show-goers.
To ensure that rural dwellers and those who cannot read English are not disadvantaged, ECZ has translated the Bill of Rights and other referendum literature into local languages.
A number of other interest groups such as Zambia Congress of Trade Unions, Media Institute of Southern Africa, and Law Association of Zambia, among others, have organised workshops and public discussions to enlighten their members and the general public on the importance of the Bill of Rights.
While the above efforts can easily tempt the advocates to recline in their hammocks declaring “job done”, maybe it is time to interrogate how the campaign has fared so far to avert any major setbacks on August 11.
I conducted some interviews with some of my family members located in different parts of the country just to ascertain their preparedness to participate in the forthcoming referendum.
The responses I got were not only shocking but devastating.
The most shocking response I got was from a female relative in Shibuyunji district.
She said in the referendum there’s an eye and ear and if one choses the ear they have said ‘no’ to change.
If they choose the eye, they have said ‘yes’ to change, and according to her, this change entails going back to the Kaunda era where people used to queue for basic necessities such as sugar and cooking oil.
According to this relative, if change is allowed, people will have rights to commit crimes such as murder, rape, abortion, among others, without being arrested and that this is actually the reason there is so much fighting in Lusaka.
Some relatives in rural areas claimed they had no idea of the referendum while some of those in urban areas said they had heard about it but did not fully understand. Some of them had actually made up their minds to just vote for leaders and ignore the referendum.
From my basic investigation, I am convinced that views expressed by my family members are representative of many Zambians out there.
While it is also true that there are some people who have fully grasped what the referendum is all about, ECZ and other stakeholders should look out for the following people in the remaining few days.
• Those who have not yet been reached by messages on referendum due to location or any other barrier.
• Those who have heard but still don’t understand probably due to their education levels.
• Those who are not just interested.
• Those who prefer every detail is explained to them because they are lazy to read.
• Those who have been fed with wrong information by, undoubtedly, people with hidden agendas.
It is deceitfulness of the worst kind for anyone to take advantage of the ignorant and unsuspecting citizens by telling them lies about the Bill of Rights, which is intended to enhance their well-being.
The least any human being worthy their conscience can do is to relay the message on the Bill of Rights as it is – without adding or subtracting anything.
The law enforcers should ensure that anyone found distorting information on the Bill of Rights with intention to deceive people is arrested.
ECZ should use the remaining days to counter the wrong information some citizens are being fed with by intensifying its campaigns, especially in formal gatherings.
Above all, it is the responsibility of every enlightened Zambian to get involved by sensitising family members through phone calls or any other way most convenient.
The author is Zambia Daily Mail editorials editor.

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