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Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Prepare for the "no" campaign! (Guest Blog - Yakima)

Last week Monday was President's Day in the USA, which got me thinking again about the formation of the original Constitutional Democracy. For one thing, the people writing that constitution had never dealt with things like Marxism, or multiculturalism beyond religious tolerance between different variations on Protestantism, or indeed even basic literacy rates among adult males above 5%. The American Founding Fathers were not a very diverse lot by any modern standard, which actually makes it easier to research how they came to the specific conclusions that they did. It also helps explain why in spite of the general success of the USA in the world, only a very few nations have actually used their system as a template for subsequent Constitutional Democracies.

At the core of democratic thought in the 1770's was a foundation in Ancient Greece and Rome as taught by English and French University Professors of the age. Their use of the term revolution contained an implied reference to the view fostered in Athenian Greece that the ideal governance of a city state was a cyclic process. By this view the very nature of internal and external pressures on leadership would serve to facilitate changes in government as the shortcomings of the old are in turn exploited by the strengths of the new. Thus like the guessing game, Rock, Paper, or Scissors, the indecision of democracies in times of crisis prompt the takeover by dictators, whose hold on power is ultimately dependent on the actions of trusted lieutenants that inevitably shift power away from the center into oligarchies, which by dint of individual success or failure within and without the ruling class tend to erode towards greater and greater extension of political franchise along democratic lines until crisis prompts calls for efficient dictatorship, and so on.

The American Revolutionaries wanted to replace an entrenched dictatorship supported by an increasingly emergent English oligarchy, with a new oligarchy ruled benevolently by themselves and supported by a nascent and largely symbolic "representative" democracy. They tried to freeze the cycle of revolution, in part by incorporating elements of all three systems into one structure, and in part by succeeding through public education in convincing the voting public that representative democracy is not oligarchy. This has limited outlets of pressures toward greater democracy largely towards extensions of the voting franchise to a greater percentage of the adult population, rather than any fundamental change in the composition of the ruling class as expressed via the representative system. It has also resulted in many of the inherent problems associated with classical oligarchies being viewed in the new american political vernacular as being the result of too much democracy, thus enhancing the role of the executive as dictator.

The steady expansion of executive power since inception is in my view a crucial flaw in the US system, and indeed arguably in all modern representative democratic systems. The Italian communist Gramsci wrote from prison that the reason his side had lost to Mussolini's fascists was by rejecting alliance with the petit bourgoisie, the academics and entrepreneurs, on the grounds that they had elitist, or otherwise oligarchical tendencies. By rejecting a supporting role for residual elements of the former ruling class schooled in organization and mobilization of resources, they left themselves open to the stark efficiency of military dictatorship.

I am by no means certain, I am still thinking about how all this might lend perspective to the Zambian Constitutional Debate, however it does seem to point towards philosophical underpinnings for both MrK's oft repeated call for greater decentralization of budget authority to local governments as well as Cho's efforts to call attention to the cultural importance and untapped potential of recognition and inclusion of traditional governance structures and customary property rights. Based on the global track record, the goal of a constitutional reform of a representative democracy should always be to minimize the power of the executive and maximize the power of the loyal opposition (i.e. people who seek to change government personnel, not fundamental government structure). Not because these things are necessarily good, but because they appear to be most susceptible to erosion over time, and most difficult to achieve once a constitution is in place.

From what I have seen from the NCC so far, we should all be gearing up for a strong NO campaign. The Office of the President should be getting weaker at every opportunity. One does not require writing a whole new constitution in order to enhance the powers of the existing rulers! They are perfectly capable of doing that from within their existing offices! The only conceivable reason to undertake this exercise at all is in order to place limits on the powers of the executive and legislative majority with the understanding that they will do everything in their power to get around, under or through those limits once in office. Instead we have hundreds of would-be 'king makers' all hoping to reward the sitting President with enough new powers to justify their own future demands for personal reward from the hand of the Big Man. I sincerely hope that each and every one of them is pressed for an explanation of their votes within the NCC once they return to their respective constituencies.

Yakima / USA
(Guest Blogger)


  1. Yakima,

    I thought this was very good.

    A key point people often forget that parties in government have no incentive to change the status quo unless their position is threatened.
    That has always been the case.

    There's no government that I can think of which was ruled by a benevolent and wise ruler who one day woke up and decided to limit his power. Even King Solomon used his God-given wisdom to amass more wealth and power to himself...

    In short...if you want to see have to be prepared to demand it...and make it clear to those who represent you...

  2. Yakima,

    Thanks for the plug on decentralisation. I think a lot can be done by creating legal frameworks (like this constitution) which give more power to local government and take as many tasks and budgets away from central government as is practical.

    At the same time, there should be a professionalisation of the civil service, by creating a 'chinese wall' between Government (politicians) and the State (civil servants). The president appoint far too many of the functionaries, and that is a problem, including for parastatals. I think instead of privatisation, parastatals should be professionally run, with appointments based on merit, and completely free from political appointments.

    Instead we have hundreds of would-be 'king makers' all hoping to reward the sitting President with enough new powers to justify their own future demands for personal reward from the hand of the Big Man. I sincerely hope that each and every one of them is pressed for an explanation of their votes within the NCC once they return to their respective constituencies.

    We need 'The Federalist Papers' to understand the reasoning behind all these suggestions to amend the constitution.

    There is far too much short term selfinterest by present day politicians, who frankly are not the most farseeing collection of individuals.

    From what I have seen from the NCC so far, we should all be gearing up for a strong NO campaign. The Office of the President should be getting weaker at every opportunity. One does not require writing a whole new constitution in order to enhance the powers of the existing rulers! They are perfectly capable of doing that from within their existing offices! The only conceivable reason to undertake this exercise at all is in order to place limits on the powers of the executive and legislative majority with the understanding that they will do everything in their power to get around, under or through those limits once in office.

    This exercise has been 'bought' by the MMD, with the taxpayer's money.

    Also, there does not seem to be a lively debate going on at the NCC website, although professor Kyamabalesa has made contributions which are more than worth reading. There is an article on Lusaka Times about the website, so perhaps now more people will find it.

    On decentralisation, I have posted several links at the NCC website, under the Local Government thread and the Chibwe Chisala article.

  3. MrK,

    I wholeheartedly applaud both your and Prof. Kyambalesa's contributions to the NCC website and debate. I personally have thought long and hard about where I fit into this process. I am not a Zambian citizen. I have no living family (that I know of) who are Zambian citizens. I will assist in either a "No" or "Yes" campaign (or refrain from further comment) based on my understanding of what actual Zambian citizens hope to achieve via Constitutional reform. Right now, my interpretation of the apparent result versus the initial impetus for reform is that the former is failing to live up to the latter. As I have nothing personal to lose (the GRZ is welcome to refuse me a visa at a later date, should I choose to request one), I am willing to "walk point" on this issue, and take a vanguard position which others may choose to endorse or to repudiate.

    Your reference to the American Federalist Papers is very welcome, this was the original mechanism by which three of the original framers of the US Constitution (Madison, Hamilton and Jay to be precise) sought to make the case for its adoption in the popular press of the day. My personal examination of the times leads me to place even greater emphasis and praise on the Anti-Federalist Essays (much harder to precisely attribute to specific individuals, debate rages among US historians), which form the basis for the American Bill of Rights, which as it turns out is the part of the US Constitution that most foreigners find most valuable and transferable. Even most American citizens don't realize that the rights and privileges they most often rely upon and tout as the benefits of US citizenship were in fact amendments, changes to the original draft so vigorously defended by their named founding fathers and first generation cabinet ministers.

    No-one actually knows who first put forward the idea that a Constitutional Representative Democracy could not go forward without the right to Freedom of Speech, or Freedom of Religion, or even the Right Against Self-Incrimination. Those persons published anonymously for fear of reprisal. If the State can muzzle your personal expression, tell you where and how to worship, and torture you into the admission that you object, then how worthwhile is the right to representation, however democratically determined?

    The exercise which each of the 500-odd members of the NCC should (and oh how I hate to use that word) be undertaking, is to imagine your least favourite person in the universe as a popularly elected President, and your second least favourite person as the leader of the Parliamentary Majority. Then design the government. Imagine that no matter what you do, you cannot get the ear of the Executive, nor a majority of elected officials. What is your recourse then if you are RIGHT? Can you trust that judge, in the Third Estate, to be a defender of basic freedoms and rights and responsibilities? Can you trust the journalists of the Fourth Estate to strive to make their mark, gain their fame and financial well-being by questioning power, or by celebrating it?

    How do we get the football fans, who would be unbelievably outraged if the rule book were re-written based on who won the last championship, to recognize that this is happening to the rule book of their whole society? Honestly I don't like playing the blame game when it comes to the woes of Zimbabwe, but how different might things look when a decade ago the opposition parties collectively won more than sixty of the elected hundred and twenty seats in Parliament, if the President had not been able to hand pick an additional thirty without recourse to the ballot box? The proposal going around to allow the Zambian President similar powers, using the simple existence of under-represented interest groups as an excuse, is intolerable. I can think of no greater constitutional time bomb to leave to one's children.

    I can set aside the incitement to violence inherent in the statement that their is a belief in the President's Office that Witches pose a real threat to the highest levels of power (though I certainly won't be endorsing the MMD personally for as long as Gabriel holds any post within the party). I can acknowledge that enough Zambians believe in such nonsense to warrant representation within a democratic state, much as it pains my brain and my heart to do so. I cannot, will not, support an exercise in elevating the Big Man in Zambia and calling it Constitutional Reform. I know what both of those things look like, and they are mutually exclusive.

    The 'chinese wall' concept is a good one (though one should always keep in mind that such an approach relies on the individuals involved keeping the two sides of the 'wall' straight in their own heads). The US system for this may be easier to implement, as I believe Kyambalesa has called for, separate, appointed personnel to staff Ministries, with approval, budget authority and oversight by Parliament.

    I spoke in the original blog about the US system, that's because I have studied it and its origins thoroughly. With the British system I am much less certain, and the first person sources and body of common knowledge are not as available to me here. My rough understanding however is that the British Parliament system is designed to thoroughly replace the executive powers of the Monarchy, similar to France, as priority over more American sentiments toward individual or regional dissent. Part of this is simple military reality (as many a US southerner has reflected in hindsight), if even a third of the original american colonies had broken away from the Union within the first couple of decades, then no-one could have stopped them. That explains the US Senate better than any other single factor. Why else allow a single representative to stop the entire process of legislation in its tracks, for as long as they can continue speaking (since amended by existing power to require 41 out of 100 to all agree to the "filibuster")? As one of two representatives for an entire State Legislature, which might rebel if not listened to, if the senator is viewed as an ambassador of a sovereign state, such a power makes more sense (since amended to popular election within each State).

    In the French/British system we see the democratic process always boiled down to an immediate decision. The PM decides, and the government acts. If, at any point, the Parliament does not support the latest decision by the Executive, then the entire government is assumed to be disfunctional and must be immediately replaced, as if it were a king, embodied in a single person. Most elites in most countries, when deciding to go along with "democratic reforms," understandably preferred the european model to the american one, and as long as there were not strong regional powers within the proposed union to object, for the most part that is what happened around the world. In a few cases (such as Costa Rica), the US system was adopted wholesale, but without strong regional "States" to make it functional over the long term.

    Zambia under KK appears to have been one of the states, that by virtue of a strong charismatic leadership, chose to "combine" the two systems, into one which uses elements of the US President and the European Prime Minister to create the all powerful Executive, the so-called Democratic Dictator. To his credit, he did step aside peacefully when the electorate chose a new Big Man, thus avoiding the potential civil war that might have followed. I think that in many ways the US system has a place in Zambia, because there are these Tribes, and this Customary Land, and all these Languages, and everybody has done an admirable job of holding it all together and not lashing out at one another for a really long time in spite of horrendous conditions on the ground. Decentralization seems to point to a way out of that tension.

    I'll be honest, speaking of tensions in the Zambian "public square",one of the reasons I read Lusaka Times comment strings less and less are all the Bemba speakers who seem to feel their comments need no translation for the rest of us. English may be the language of the colonial oppressor, but from my vantage point here on the Pacific Rim, the British have lost control over this language, and the computer programmers own it now. It is the language of the web, and the biggest single group of users are in India. I understand that there may be some people who have something which they are burning to share with the wider world, but for which they can cannot find the words outside of their own language. Yet I have never seen another Bemba speaker on that site recognize such a comment as valuable enough to warrant translation to the rest of the world (even if they find it worthwhile to respond in Bemba). I can only assume that I am supposed to conclude that nothing said in that language is actually relevant, which seems absurd to me.

    I love to celebrate and spread Bemba proverbs and words throughout this global English world, I often find them to be clever and insightful across cultures, but on LT they never bother to tell me what they mean (in contrast to responsible journalists like Gershom). Neither Zambia nor Lusaka will ever be universally Bemba-speaking, so learn to translate and your language will survive. Fail to do so and the rest of us will just tune you out, and your children will question why you insist that they learn a dead tongue. I have the same problem with the Spanish speaking immigrants here: I am not trying to undermine their culture, I am trying to enable them to actually preserve it, update it, and spread it within the context they now live in. Bringing local Zambian languages to the web is laudable and should be encouraged, but preaching to the converted gets no-one anywhere.

    I likewise won't engage with the Post, because they are even worse, having adopted the failed New York Times strategy for web-based content (NYT bonds went to "junk" status among the first last year). As a result of not allowing non-subscribers to access their "feature" articles or archives, they simply stopped being the newspaper of record in the US, within a very few years. Last year the "Most Influential" news source in the US was the Drudge Report, a Blog (this year it will likely be Politico). Meanwhile the NYT and Post seem to think that we need them to tell us what is happening. Have a nice fall boys, looks like a hard landing from here.

    The Zambian Anti-Federalist Papers will be published on the web, on sites hosted outside of the country where the government censorship laws can't get at them. The problem will be access for the bulk of the population which will have to vote on any referendum, and which almost certainly will default to "Yes" unless local leaders advise them otherwise. The logical assumption is that the powers that be who wrote the document knew what they were doing. That is why it is vital that the option to say "No" is so important to make apparent now, before there is a concerted effort to win a rubber stamp for the NCC without real public debate.

  4. Yakima,

    Well assessed.

    I have a collection of Zambia proverbs I plan to translate and put on the web. I suspect they’ll go under the House of Chiefs blog. But I have promised not to touch them until I translate my father’s bemba book sitting in the Library into English. It is about traditional methods of fishing and fishing history in general in Luapula. The book was published via mission press but my many commitments have prevented me from subjecting the works to a translator before wider marketing via Amazon and Co..

    On the Post, you are quite right…it strikes me that their strategy is now being eroded by the Watchdog and Lusaka Times. We saw this during the election when basically the results appeared to have passed them by. This blog, Lusaka Times and of course that fantastic Website appeared to report in real time…while the Post, appear to languish behind.

    A crucial factor I see on the horizon is the emergence of websites led by radio networks….these have yet to rise but literally throughout the country we have a lot of independent radio stations which have yet to grasp the internet mainly because they see their primary role as serving the local populations…when they do…..boom! the information will surely come of age….


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