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Friday, 18 March 2011

Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Bill 2010: Part X

House of Chiefs

Article 177, clause (1) establishes the House of Chiefs :
There shall be established a House of Chiefs for the Republic which shall be an advisory body to the Government on traditional, customary and any other matters referred to it by the President or as may be provided by, or under, an Act of Parliament.
Article 178 sets out its objectives :
Without limiting Article 177 (1), the House of Chiefs may — (a) consider and discuss any Bill, referred to it by the President, dealing with, or touching on, custom or tradition before it is introduced into the National Assembly; (b) discuss matters relating to national development; (c) initiate, discuss and decide on matters that relate to customary law and practice; (d) initiate, discuss and make recommendations regarding the local community’s welfare; consider and discuss any matter referred to it by the President, or approved by the President, for reference to the House; (f) submit resolutions on any Bill or matter referred to it by the President, and the President shall cause the resolutions of the House of Chiefs to be laid before the National Assembly; and (g) recommend to the President persons to be bestowed with honours.
These provisions largely perpetuate the status quo. In particular, it maintains the House of Chiefs as an "advisory body" that carries no weight. It is a talking shop for chiefs. Chief Puta perhaps expressed it best when he called the House of Chiefs a “mere white elephant”. It drains resources that could be used in fighting poverty.

The absence of credible power has dissuaded many able chiefs from taking House of Chiefs matters seriously. Many intelligent chiefs find the House of Chiefs pointless and therefore do not take part in sessions. This has left the House of Chiefs in the hands of illiterate and corrupt chiefs. Corruption is always rife in advisory bodies because such entities are used by the Executive to reward political friends in exchange for staying in power.

Simply put, the House of Chiefs is not functioning as it should be. However in reforming the House of Chiefs we must first ask a broader question – what role, if any, should there be for culture / traditions in Zambia’s development model? Answering that question requires us to first define what we mean by “development” and then assess whether “culture / traditions” as any role to play in shaping that development.

The “standard model” of development sees economic improvement as the essence of development. Economic growth expands choices and improves social welfare. Development comes essentially to mean higher and higher growth. A large amount of time is spent finding ways in which national economic growth can be enhanced. Current consensus points to the need to develop “open institutions” that are much more suited for high quality growth e.g. greater democratic institutions. Under this “western” model there’s no special role for any cultural or social function. Where such exists, these must necessarily be subservient to higher ideals of national growth. There’s certainly merit in the standard model that Zambia unreservedly embraced. However, for development to be meaningful to our people it must be owned or have an intrinsic Zambian definition, especially at the local level.

The standard western model presupposes the meaning of “development” for every Zambian and seeks to realign national institutions accordingly to deliver such high quality growth. However, it is quite feasible that an alternative definition of development may command different requirements on the type of local institutions that delivers that development. The reason why people are not experiencing the benefits of current national growth is not just that the growth patterns are unequal but that Zambians have different expectations of what development means to them. Real development is not something that can be delivered from the top down, it must be defined from the bottom-up. It is not something that can be defined by bureaucrats in Lusaka it must arise from our villages in Kashikishi and other places. It requires an explicit local approach.

Development therefore rightly understood is the increase in the freedom of local communities to determine their own destiny, consistent with their cultural and social beliefs. To have genuine development Zambia needs to put in place policies that allow each area to maximise these developmental freedoms. This requires two important steps. First, each district / constituency needs to define its vision of development is and how it would like to see that delivered. Secondly, each locality needs to ask itself what local institutions it wants to put in place to help deliver that development.

Now it might be the case that for Samfya residents “development” means a greater emphasis on traditional norms (e.g. less democratic openness) combined with participatory budgeting – but minimal emphasis on economic growth. For Mufulira it could be the other way round (more democratic openness and growth, but erosion of traditional forms) or Kapiri Mponshi residents may go for both. The important point is that we should allow each area to define their vision of development and the appropriate local institutions that accords to their goals. It should not be the role of central government to super impose its world view on local people. Such an approach does not deliver development because only local people really know what development means for them. In some cases, they will reject democratic openness and in some others they’ll embrace it.

This approach raises the inevitable question of how we integrate the constituent parts to form a meaningful whole. The starting point is that we must start with a basic affirmation: strong societies are those societies which are supported by a tripod of strong markets, strong democratic foundation and religious or cultural institutions. Despite the limitations of markets high quality growth at the national level is necessary for delivering increased choices that improves social welfare. Culture plays a strong and dynamic role in creating durable societies. Equally, we hold that democracy has 'intrinsic value' and is important in its own right. The question is: how do we ensure that our vision of local people driven institutions support the emergence of this strong national apparatus?

It is in answering that question that the role of the House of Chiefs becomes important. Having recognised that the notion of development and culture are interlinked, the next step is to ensure that nationally there’s a greater affirmation of our traditions by bring them to centre of decision making. If this logical connection is accepted then, the chieftaincy that are the very heart of our cultural traditions must be recognised as having a primary role in shaping national life. This would be most viable through reinforcing the chieftaincy in local government and ensuring that the House of Chiefs becomes a credible second chamber that links local preferences on traditions to national ideals on high quality growth.

The local role of chiefs would be dictated by how localities define development and the level of emphasis they place on using existing cultural institutions to foster development. For some areas, the role of chiefs may open up the possibility of a new model that improves on role they played during colonialism as “native authorities”, working hand in hand with local administrators and representatives. The problem at the moment is that everyone in the village runs to the chief for justice administration and economic sustenance. Unfortunately many chiefs have no financial budget or clearly defined role in meeting these needs. The travesty of colonialism is that it reduced the chieftaincy which prior to that period had served the people so well to an irrelevant spectator. The local government apparatus has continued that parallel approach (government imposed system and traditional authorities) and with it a huge and inefficient struggle in delivering local development.

Two important legitimate concerns may be raised regarding this “traditional infusion”. The first relates to the problem of corrupt local elites in league with traditional leadership who usurp local rules. This issue of course is present in any arrangement, though slightly amplified in this context. However, it does point to the importance of participatory approaches in local governance arrangements. The model suggested above accomplishes this through fiscally devolving power to the local people which allows them to prioritise spending and make their own decisions – based on areas they believe are vital to their development pursuit.

The second relates to the issue of universal rights. Would the new local apparatus lead to discrimination against other tribe and, women? Could it lead to perpetuation of tribalism and national disintegration? The issue of universal rights is handled through national legislation and relate to observance of rule of law e.g. legislation on the ‘bill of rights’. The suggested reforms do not change the need to uphold these areas. The question of “tribalism” is more challenging and demands solutions at the local and national levels.

At the national level, the key is putting in place a much stronger House of Chiefs. A second chamber, possibly drawing in religious leaders, would provide checks and balances to what Parliament do – similar to the House of Lords in England. But unlike the English version, chiefs will be having direct links to the grass roots since they would operate both through chiefdoms and within a revised and integrated local government system. By moving the chieftaincy to the legislative centre, it would enhance democracy rather than weaken it. For example, under the proposed model land redistribution and reform of customary law would be easier to undertake because chiefs would be connected to the centre and with real administrative power, they would not feel ‘threatened’.

Opposition against a stronger House of Chiefs centres on the “undemocratic” nature of such reforms. This position is misguided because it essentially suffers from the illusion of pervasive democracy. Much of what affects our every day existence is thrust on us by unelected people. The entire bureaucracy of government that drafts legislation and builds complexity upon complexity in our laws and policies is not elected. Indeed, in Parliament we continue to have unelected nominated parliamentarians. The argument also fails because it is built on a presupposition of democracy as a means to an end. As noted the goal is to have a stronger society, of which the democratic aspect is an important supporting leg. If we can have a less democratic second chamber that helps deliver that strong society that is development.

The vision above neatly fuses modern principles of governance within a traditional framework. In the end Zambia will never achieve political or economic independence until it develops a distinctly Zambian idea to solving its economic problems. We are struggling to achieve local development because there’s no local idea of development and no vision of what institutions can deliver a more harmonious route to getting there.

The institutional reforms can in the long term be supplemented by a structural shift in inter tribal relations built on broader education, language and communication reforms. Education needs to embrace differences, but at the same time teach the new generation how to communicate and relate to one other. Compulsory languages of other tribal languages and cultural lessons are particularly vital. Indeed, such a move must come with erosion of English as the single national language. The colonial adoption of English as a single national official language does more harm than good. Although it was predicated upon the desire to foster inter tribal unity, it has done so at the expense of reinforcing the dominance of rich Zambian elites. More worryingly, the measure also prevents many people in our villages from communicating with their government. In the words of Wangari Maathi, it has effectively turned the requirement into “the strongest form of discrimination, and indeed, means of oppression and exclusion”. A possible solution is to follow South Africa’s approach and adopt a suite of national official languages. 

To bind this together, there’s a greater need to support initiatives towards greater promotion cheaper forms of communication e.g. development local language radio stations, which although they may have the capacity to inflame tensions, in an open dialogue framework system suggest, it is likely to give local people greater voice to be heard by political leaders.

Until Zambia takes these broader sets of reform, Chief Puta and the others will continue to be a wasted resource and the ultimate victim will be the poorest in society, who will never be reached with a non-Zambian centred idea of development.

Zambian Economist is currently reviewing the Constitution of Zambia (Amendment) Bill 2010. All posts in this ongoing review can be found at the Constitution of Zambia


  1. Cho deals admirably with a very important issue affecting most of Zambia’s people. The Amendment Bill simply preserves the cream-cake façade of the House of Chiefs with the ‘Big Man’ President in charge and the chiefs on their backs clapping their chests. If the House of Chiefs advises the President that this or that chief should be removed, he simply decides – depending on the delivery of votes – who will be chief. In Eastern Province he removed one chief and then later was persuaded to re-instate him. It had nothing to do with the deliberations of the mpemba or the traditional structures. In fairness, it was much the same under Indirect Rule, but that was a long time ago and it is time we moved on with chiefs to an Upper Chamber.

    And then, the most important point of all: yes, we do most definitely require an ‘alternative definition of development’ for Zambia. But be comforted, the rest of the world does as well. Harvey in his ‘ENIGMA OF CAPITAL: AND THE CRISES OF CAPITALISM’ has analysed the forces at work within capitalism, noting how prone it is to crisis, calling for remedial social action by setting out ‘some loosely agreed-upon common objectives’. These objectives resonate with traditional African communal culture - certainly with Zambian culture:

    'These might include respect for nature, radical egalitarianism in social relations, institutional arrangements based in some sense of common interests, democratic administrative procedures (as opposed to the monetised shams that now exist), labour processes organised by the direct producers, daily life as the free exploration of new kinds of social revelations and living arrangements, mental conceptions that focus on self-realisation in service to others and technological and organizational innovations orientated to the pursuit of the common good rather than to supporting militarised power and corporate greed. These could be the co-revolutionary points around which social action could converge and rotate'.

    And an old-hand Africanist, the historian, Basil Davidson in THE BLACK MAN'S BURDEN: AFRICA AND THE CURSE OF THE NATION-STATE called for something similar; for an autochthonous model for Africa’s development:

    'It would be found, rather, in devolving executive power to a multiplicity of locally representative bodies. It would be found in re-establishing ‘vital inner links’ within the fabric of society. Democratic participation would have to be ‘mass participation’ And ‘mass participation, patiently evolved and applied, would be able to produce its own version of a strong state: the kind of state, in other words, that would be able to promote and protect civil society'.

    These, in essence, are objectives and views of the way forward that are in harmony with African culture, certainly with the people of the chiefdom commons. It is time for the chiefs to take action, for the people of Zambia to attain true independence. The waiting is over.

  2. I'd say the reforms are quite wise and we'll hope they'll change situation in Zambia for the better.


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