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Church and Civil Society: Promoting Democratic Participation in Zambia

Church and Civil Society: Promoting Democratic Participation in Zambia

By Kayula Lesa, RSC


Democratic participation forms a central part of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). Its principles, such as human dignity, subsidiarity and the common good, encourage Christians to take keen interest in matters of public interest and participate at different levels to build a just society which enables integral human development and respect for human rights. Human dignity is founded upon the belief that every human person is made in God’s own image and likeness, placing a human person’s needs at the centre of everything. While the principle of subsidiarity stresses the significance of the involvement of people at shaping decisions that affect their lives, the common good places responsibility on individuals to seek the good of the whole community and the whole person by demanding everyone’s contribution. Therefore, the “Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate.”[1]

What is democratic participation and what is it that makes it significant? In simple terms, democratic participation can be defined as taking part in the “practice of the art or science of directing and administrating states or other political units.”[2] Its particular significance is not only in its potential to produce better decisions defined in terms of policy outcomes but also in its developmental value as it educates people and enhances the meaning of their lives and the value of their relationships with each other. Where democratic participation is fostered, citizens shape laws, form policies, and amend and approve constitutions. Where there is little or no participation, citizens lack political influence, remain powerless and are subjected to the wishes of those who keep the power.

Assessing the degree of citizens’ participation in political, social, economic and cultural processes that affect their lives is difficult. However, levels of participation in Zambia have greatly improved especially since 1991 when Zambia returned to multi-party democracy. Notable opportunities for democratic participation have included the constitution-making process, the African Peer Review Mechanism, the Jubilee Debt Campaign (1998 onwards) and Zambia’s Fifth National Development Plan (2006-2010). However, questions still remain about:

§ Who exactly participates in these processes?

§ What is their level of participation?

§ Does their participation yield desired policy outcomes?

§ What constitutes meaningful participation?

§ Which arenas allow for meaningful and wider participation?

Political Processes

Constitution-making process: The constitution is the supreme law of the land, providing a framework to address national issues. Without a good constitution in place, strides made toward integral human development bear less fruit.

For decades, Zambia has struggled to draft and adopt a people-driven constitution that will “stand the test of time.” The current constitution does not adequately address Zambia’s development challenges since its independence.

Constitutional Review Commissions (CRCs) have attempted to facilitate the constitution-making process by gathering views from the general public and drafting a constitution based on those views. These include the Chona CRC (1972), the Mvunga CRC (1991), Mwanakatwe CRC (1995) and Mung’omba CRC (2003). The National Constitutional Conference (NCC), a group of more than 400 delegates from the government (55%), private sector, civil society and the church, is currently deliberating on the Mung’omba Draft Constitution.

One may conclude that the most recent process is democratic and participatory based on wide consultation of citizens and the composition of the NCC which reflects all sections of the Zambian society. However, people’s complaints suggest that many have become voiceless with little or no choice about how they can meaningfully participate in this important process which will affect their lives.

The government rejected key recommendations from the Mung’omba CRC. Of these were: 1) the repeal of the current constitution 2) the adoption of a new constitution through a Constituent Assembly and 3) a national referendum of the draft constitution prior to its enactment by parliament. Instead, government established the NCC and entrusted it with the power to either draft a new constitution or amend the current one. Furthermore, the NCC Act does not guarantee that the referendum will take place. Without a referendum the bill of rights cannot be amended to include economic, social and cultural rights (currently in the constitution as “policy directives”). Many Zambians believe these rights are essential for human and sustainable development.

Given these departures from the Mung’omba CRC recommendations and the exorbitant amount of money spent on sitting allowances for NCC participants, the three Church Mother Bodies, the Zambia Episcopal Conference (ZEC), the Evangelical Fellowship of Zambia (EFZ) and the Council of Churches in Zambia (CCZ) along with some civil society organisations (CSOs) chose to boycott the NCC as an expression of dissatisfaction with the exercise of power by those in government. These realities affirm that:

possessing power is a necessary condition or logical equivalent of true political participation. If one is merely consulted by a powerful person who wants one’s views for information, … one has not participated in the politics in any significant sense.[3]

Many Zambians still hope that the NCC will take seriously the views that citizens expressed in the Mung’omba Draft Constitution.

The African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM): The African Union (AU) under its programme, the New Partnership for African’s Development (NEPAD), recognises that no meaningful human development can be achieved where good governance is lacking. Corruption and mismanagement of public resources are two barriers to human development in Africa. Both are symptoms of bad governance.

To correct such ills, the AU introduced the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM) in 2003. Countries voluntarily accede to this mechanism which opens their individual governance processes and structures to review by their citizens as well as other APRM member countries. As a tool for self and peer assessment, the APRM aims to “foster the adoption of policies, standards and practices that lead to political stability, high economic growth, sustainable development and accelerated sub-regional and Continental economic integration.”[4] Areas of focus include democracy and good political governance; economic governance and management; corporate governance; and socio-economic development. The expected outcome is the “entrenchment of the principles of accountability and transparency that constitute the bedrock of good governance.”[5]

If implemented as intended, the APRM provides for greater participation of Zambian citizens in political, economic and social processes as it encourages public debate and in-depth dialogue on policy issues at national level. It also offers some political space within which the church, civil society, the private sector and government can together ask, why, for instance, Zambia has been unable to realise widely shared development despite massive endowments of natural resources such as land, water and minerals.

Five stages constitute the APRM process. Stage one is a fact-finding stage. Government and all stakeholders respond to a detailed questionnaire examining political, economic and corporate governance along with socio-economic development. Stage two involves the visit of the APR Country Review Team assigned to the country. They hold extensive consultations with all stakeholders. At stage three, the government responds to the APR Team’s draft report and a final country report is prepared from the wide-ranging consultations. At stage four, Heads of State who form the APR Forum deliberate on the report and formulate necessary actions. The APR Panel of eminent persons assists the forum in recommending policy reforms. The APR Forum then discusses their recommendations with the country’s leader. At stage five the report is returned to the country under review for consideration. Within six months, the report is made public in regional and sub-regional structures such as the Pan-African Parliament.

Zambia acceded to the APRM process in January 2006. At the time, the government was preoccupied with the approaching tripartite election and the formation of the NCC. No funds were allocated to the APRM in the 2006 National budget. The government was unable to complete the review process by its target of January 2008 because of its slow pace regarding APRM activities.

In contrast, church and CSOs organised themselves for collaboration on the APRM even before its official launch by the Minister of Justice in July 2007. Initially, they had few meaningful opportunities to influence the development of both NEPAD and the APRM. Despite this fact, CSOs and the church have played a leading role in sensitising the public. Even before government organised an informative meeting on of the APRM, CSOs had already carried out a significant number of activities. CSOs formed a secretariat in July 2007 to coordinate their work on the APRM. In May 2007, The Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection (JCTR) conducted research on the APRM and published the book, Is Good Governance Possible in Zambia? Churches and CSOs and the APRM Process, which was widely circulated to the public. JCTR has recently launched the updated version of this booklet, APRM in Zambia: Taking Hold of Our Future Through the African Peer Review Mechanism (April 2009). Other modes of sensitisation have included workshops, radio and TV programmes and press releases.

Only in August 2008 did the government constitute the National Governing Council (NGC) to manage an inclusive process at national level. The NGC is comprised of 47 members with an active politician as its chairperson. CSOs, through their secretariat, have raised several concerns regarding the NGC. They questioned the increase in NCG members to 47 from stakeholders’ initial suggestion of 15 or 21, worrying that the larger number will unnecessarily drain national resources. Civil society was also uncomfortable that an active politician should chair the NGC. While the chairperson eventually resigned (although it is not known whether it is due only to pressure from civil society), the NGC composition remains the same.

Zambia’s review is now scheduled for January 2010. There is a feeling that although citizens may have opportunities for participation, their input may not be as effective given the limited time to digest the process fully in the next few months. Disadvantaged groups such as the illiterate, many of whom are women; the rural population; and children may not have their voices heard due to the time factor.

Economic Processes

1. The Jubilee Debt Campaign: Although a very poor country now, Zambia at Independence in 1964 ranked among the richest countries in Africa. In the 1970s and 1980s, it plunged into heavy indebtedness. Significant among the factors leading to Zambia’s debt crisis were the 1973 global oil price hike and the decline in the price of copper, the commodity upon which Zambia is still overly dependent.

This crisis necessitated massive borrowing both internally and externally. Quickly, the country plunged into debts of unsustainable levels with debt stock increasing progressively. External debt which stood at US$815 million in 1970 increased to US$7.3 billion by 2001. From the 1970s to the early 2000s, a large portion of the national resources went into debt servicing while social sectors, such as education and health received less. The church and civil society found this unacceptable and in 1998 launched a vigorous campaign to lending institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank (WB) to cancel debt. What came to be known as the Jubilee-2000 campaign achieved debt relief for Zambia in 2005, contributing to a decrease in the debt stock and an increase in spending on important social sectors. A significant number of both multilateral (such as IMF and WB) and bilateral (all Paris Club members except for Russia and Brazil) lending institutions granted Zambia 100% debt cancellation.

To what extent did the church and civil society stimulate participation in the campaign and the processes that followed? The campaign began with good research, later used in the sensitisation of the public. JCTR was instrumental in this campaign. Working closely with the church and other CSOs, JCTR used various means to inform people about the need for debt cancellation. One of the key activities was the formation of Jubilee-Zambia Teams in different provinces which encouraged participation at grassroots levels often disadvantaged because of high illiteracy rates. Thousands of signatures were collected. The campaign and other processes that followed it, led to Zambia’s eligibility for debt relief. This campaign saw wide and dedicated democratic participation by the public because of extensive use of the media.

2. The Fifth National Development Plan (2006-2010): Citizens’ democratic participation has not only been fostered in political processes aimed at promoting good governance but also in economic processes. One such process is the Fifth Nation Development Plan (FNDP), a poverty reduction strategy scheduled to run from 2006 to 2010. People participated in the FNDP from its formulation to its implementation. The plan details the government’s intended actions in various sectors to raise the standards of its citizens and bring about human development shown by the rising standards of its citizens. Zambia has had four national plans before 1980 but none after that until 2006, although the Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP 2002-2004) and the Transitional National Development Plan (TNDP 2002-2005) also aimed at reducing poverty. The main theme of the FNDP is “broad-based wealth and job creation through citizenry participation and Technological Advancement.”[6] Priority areas include education, agriculture and health and infrastructure construction. In many senses, the FNDP is seen as an extension of the PRSP and the TNDP.

Government involved citizens in this process from its preparatory stage to

its implementation. The FNDP developed over a period of two years during which citizens were asked what programmes they believed could move Zambia forward in terms of widely shared development. The FNDP contains the views of many Zambians. Government consulted the poor, women, government representatives and CSOs, whose contribution was coordinated by Civil Society for Poverty Reduction (CSPR), among others. Many Zambians still show interest in the FNDP and continue to monitor its progress. Many were and are able to make contributions because the church and CSOs carried out massive sensitisation to popularise the process, making every effort to simplify the plan to a level many are able to understand.

Lessons learned and challenges experienced from these processes:

  1. Institutions that intend to foster democratic participation need to do in-depth research on the issues that concern the people. Factual information forms a strong basis for both advocacy and the education of the general public. Good research attracts effective dialogue between stakeholders. People are able to listen if they can relate to the issues being raised. JCTR, like other NGOs, has commanded a strong voice using well-researched materials on different social and economic issues.

  1. Emphasis on values: In Zambia, the church enjoys legitimacy among the population because it brings both human and religious values into public life. Values of human dignity, solidarity, option for the poor and others form the basis for its concern on social and economic issues. It is arguably the most popular public institution. It therefore carries a huge responsibility for encouraging democratic participation. It also must emphasise the link between religion and politics as some sections of society see these as separate arenas.

  1. Basic disadvantages, such as levels of illiteracy especially among women and the time frames given to these important processes, make democratic participation difficult. For instance, economic language of the APRM questionnaires can perhaps only be understood by economists and the educated with difficulty. Efforts are often made to simply texts and translate into the seven national languages but in some cases the information is diluted in the process. Delays give little time to people for proper scrutiny. These two basic disadvantages create an incentive for apathy and make democratic participation difficult for many.

So how should the church and civil society promote democratic participation?

  1. The church and CSOs should lobby government to make democratic participation a priority and to ensure that the views of the poor are heard and that they are able to own national processes.
  2. Political will is not enough. Strong cooperation between government, the church, civil society and the private sector is crucial. Political will expressed separately by these entities is ineffective in sensitising and mobilising citizens for participation.
  3. Above all, there should formation in CST values, of stakeholders such as politicians and civil society groups. Emphasis on the centrality of the dignity of the human person could stimulate a greater sense of responsibility to society which in turn could encourage democratic participation.


  4. [1] John Paul II: Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus,46:AAS 93 (2001:850).

    [2] McClean, Ian, A Concise Dictionary of Politics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996.

    [3] McClean, Ian, A Concise Dictionary of Politics, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1996, 362.

    [4] JCTR, APRM in Zambia: Taking Hold of Our Future Through the African Peer Review Mechanism, Lusaka, JCTR, 2009, 3.

    [5] Ibid, 4.

    [6] CSPR 2007:4