WE ARE THE ONES WE ARE WAITING FOR: DEMOCRACY, GOOD GOVERNANCE AND THE RULE OF LAW IN ZAMBIA BY LINDA KASONDE
Several months ago I wrote an article entitled, ‘Just Another African Country: The Challenge of Leadership in Zambia and the Poverty of Ambition’. The article had arisen out of a conversation I had had with a South African friend of mine, Ntombenhle, during the initial parliamentary debates over the Nkandla scandal in South Africa about the excessive expenditure on President Jacob Zuma’s residence. She had remarked to me that “we’re becoming just another African country”, somehow implying that they had been superior to that previously. So in my article I thought about what it meant to be “just another African country” and the words impoverished, disease-ridden and corrupt came to mind. My article had traced the history of some of the most prominent leaders in Zambia since Independence and concluded that we are only doomed to be “just another African country” if we the citizens of this country do not hold our leaders to account for ensuring adherence to democracy, the rule of law, good governance and development for our people.
A few weeks ago I had another discussion with my South African friend Ntombenhle. It was several months after the initial debate over the Nkandla scandal had began and she now expressed confidence in the strength of South African institutions such as the judiciary and the office of the Public Protector that had held President Zuma to account. I had expressed some cynicism at her positive outlook and told her, “just wait, people retire and contracts expire and the same politicians who are now being held to account will have to fill those vacancies”. A couple of weeks later, I changed my mind. I wrote to Ntombenhle and told her that I really hoped that she was right because I believe that it is only through strong institutions that we shall see our countries rise out of poverty and corruption. Strong institutions guarantee greater accountability and subsequently more prudent use of public resources. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, strong institutions on their own are not enough. We also need to see an active and vigilant citizenry who elect the right people into office, who ensure that their doing their job whilst in office or remove them if they are found wanting.
From a legal perspective, a strong judiciary is imperative to ensuring that constitutionalism, the rule of law and good governance are adhered to. We have many competent and courageous judges in the judiciary in Zambia. But unfortunately, we have also seen some instances of judges being intimidated by the party in power at different times in our history, instances of courts being unwilling to exercise judicial activism in upholding the rights of Zambians, and of course our judiciary is not financially autonomous. To have enhanced access to justice and delivery of justice, we need to see a fully independent judiciary that is impartial and progressive to get the kind of legal reform that we want in our country. But courts do not move themselves, we need to see bold and proactive lawyers take up challenging cases that touch on issues of the rule of law, constitutionalism and good governance. Indeed, we also need courageous citizens to give the lawyers instructions to take up these cases.
On democracy and an active citizenry, I have said on several occasions that our people do not know their own power. As the poet June Jordan put it, “we are the ones we have been waiting for”. In other words, if we do not effect the change we want to see, no one else will. For example, it would have been great to see more Zambians actively involved in the advocacy for a new people-driven constitution. It is not enough to identify a problem; we must be a part of the solution. Zambians do have a good history of effecting peaceful change through the ballot box. We can also be proud of the role we played in stopping President Chiluba from amending the Constitution to provide for a third term. But there are still numerous challenges, particularly those posed by the 2016 amendments to the Constitution. We must remain vigilant.
I watched President Barack Obama give a commencement speech to the 2016 graduating students of Howard University. In that speech he said many things about living in a democracy that are applicable to the Zambian situation:
“…democracy requires compromise, even when you are 100 percent right. This is hard to explain sometimes. You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. If you think that the only way forward is to be as uncompromising as possible, you will feel good about yourself, you will enjoy a certain moral purity, but you’re not going to get what you want. And if you don’t get what you want long enough, you will eventually think the whole system is rigged. And that will lead to more cynicism, and less participation, and a downward spiral of more injustice and more anger and more despair. And that’s never been the source of our progress. That’s how we cheat ourselves of progress”.
“[However], that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t challenge [people with dissenting views]. Have the confidence to challenge them, the confidence in the rightness of your position. There will be times when you shouldn’t compromise your core values, your integrity, and you will have the responsibility to speak up in the face of injustice. But listen. Engage. If the other side has a point, learn from them. If they’re wrong, rebut them. Teach them. Beat them on the battlefield of ideas. And you might as well start practicing now, because one thing I can guarantee you – you will have to deal with ignorance, hatred, racism, foolishness, trifling folks. I promise you, you will have to deal with all that at every stage of your life. That may not seem fair, but life has never been completely fair. Nobody promised you a crystal stair. And if you want to make life fair, then you’ve got to start with the world as it is”.
So my challenge to all of us is: do not wait for democracy, the rule of law or good governance to happen; make it happen. As President Theodore Roosevelt said, “do what you can, with what you have where you are”.
The author is the President of the Law Association of Zambia