By Isaac Mwanza
In the last article, I discussed the issues under dispute which some fellow citizens thought to be subject to the national dialogue; I also pointed out that there could be an iceberg factor, that is, issues which the parties would not want to publicly admit. It is now important to explain the parties to the much-talked about national political dialogue process in order to acquire a better insight into the parties’ motivations, aspirations and interests.
A dialogue that has divided the nation
From the beginning, I must state that the national dialogue process has divided the nation into two distinct groups. One group, where the Patriotic Front (PF) is the major player being the party in government, believes that the key issues in the dialogue are legal in nature, that is, constitutional, electoral reform and the Public Order Act, as well as civility in politics.
The other group, led by the United Party for National Development (UPND), see dialogue as a platform for discussing the alleged breakdown in the rule of law (most probably resulting from incarceration of the UPND leader Mr. Hakainde Hichilema) and the dismissal by the Constitutional Court, of Mr. Hichilema’s presidential election petition which his advocates failed to prosecute.
On the other hand, the church has also come up with its own agenda that include social dialogue, cultural dialogue and economic dialogue, among others. This is confusion at its highest.
On the side of the PF are political parties – with and without representation in governing structures – which form the Zambia Centre for Inter-party Dialogue (ZCID) and some civil society organisations who believe dialogue is about disputes arising from lacunas, ambiguities and lack of clarity in the constitution and some of other laws, which must be dealt with. To some private media that closely championing the same anti-government agenda as opposition parties, this group has been labelled as PF surrogates or affiliates.
On the side of the UPND are some Church leaders belonging to church mother-bodies, smaller opposition political parties without representation in parliament or government, some private media disguising themselves as being independent and some civil society organisations, who believe there is a breakdown in the rule of law, a claim most analysts have termed as imaginary. For the UPND and its affiliate political parties, the dialogue has recently been described as anchored on “the transition of power in 2021”, and so they ask the question: “what type [of transition]; chaotic or peaceful”?
The UPND and its affiliates answer that question, “And that is where the on-going national dialogue and reconciliation comes in”. Really?
It is little wonder then, that the UPND and its affiliates in what they claim to be an alliance, went “…to approach the Church Mother-Bodies and seek counsel on whether there is any role the that they [the UPND and its affiliates] could play to assist in addressing concerns of their colleagues in the Patriotic Front regarding the on-going National Dialogue and the Reconciliation Process”. According to this “alliance” of UPND and its affiliate political parties, the church advised them to reach out to the ruling Patriotic Front party.
So the bigger question is, what does the UPND and its affiliate political parties see as the role of the church in this on-going dialogue process which they have termed as focusing on the 2021 transition – on whether it will be peaceful or chaotic?
Common knowledge is that this ambitious “2021 power transition project” may be motivated by the developments in Congo DR where the church was at the centre of electoral dispute in trying to usher in the preferred opposition candidate. Unfortunately for the DR Congo Bishops, their gambit failed and they must now sulk in silence as Felix Tshisekedi, declared the winner of the DR Congo presidential elections by the constitutionally appointed Electoral Commission, takes the reins.
The role of third-party mediators in a dispute
From the above, it is worth pointing out that the on-going national political dialogue process means different things to either of the two camps. There is no matter of mutual concern between these two parties and, worse still, there has not been the process of give and take of ideas between the parties in an effort to find common ground.
The church has also come in with a totally new agenda of social dialogue, cultural dialogue, economic dialogue etc., which could be matters that are not really in dispute. This current path by the church is quite dangerous in negotiation or mediation proceedings. It is common knowledge that when conducting negotiations or trying to mediate in disputes, the third party must avoid the temptation of imposing their own views or settlement terms on the contending parties.
A good mediator must always remember to ensure that their values, attitudes and beliefs do not impinge on the process and unconsciously affect what they do and how they work. It is also a fundamental principle of mediation that the parties to the any dispute must be negotiators and the mediator such as the church only serve to act as a facilitator. It is the parties themselves that should be responsible for all their decisions, including settlement terms.
A common thread which the church has failed to recognise in trying to superintend on this process as mediators is the principle that the mediator does not impose his or her biases, decisions or preferences on the parties even though the mediator can provide information and help with evaluation, but none of this allows the church to influence the parties unduly in their decision-making.
The statements that have recently come from some church leaders at the centre of this dialogue process do not inspire the confidence that persons nominated by these church mother bodies are a neutral party as they have taken the dispute as their own, to the effect of stating that whether the PF are part of the dialogue or not it will succeed. What dialogue can there be with only one side to the dispute, attending? What dialogue can take place between UPND and its affiliate parties, or what dialogue can be there be if there is only ZCID and those that support it, in attendance?
The fact is that the parties are required to make their own decisions, as they did in Siavonga at the Secretary General’s meeting. Much as the church may have a different view, it must be clear that the church as mediator, cannot be responsible for the fairness of the outcome to be agreed between the parties but they are responsible for the fairness of the process.
The expectations are that the church should have been responsible for managing the mediation process in such a way that the procedure is as fair as possible to both or all parties and not the outcome itself. So far, we also know that the church cannot guarantee fairness of the procedure because it has already taken side and a stance on this dialogue. Worse still, the Church, it appears, will only listen to those who are sympathetic of them or glorify them and not critics.
The recent developments in the on-going national political dialogue process also highlights some power imbalances. This is normal in all processes because one doesn’t surely expect these many nameless persons in the name of party presidents, to be considered as being of equal standing with the main parties such as President Edgar Lungu and Hakainde Hichilema.
Power imbalances exist in most situations and mediation cannot and does not pretend to eliminate hem but the facilitator such as the church should have been strategizing to help prevent these from distorting this process. Mediators may address power imbalances where appropriate but where the power imbalances are as severe as they currently are in the on-going national dialogue process, and where it is felt that the dialogue cannot be fairly or effectively conducted, the most honourable thing for the church should have been to decline to conduct this process.
This is exactly what the Commonwealth did.
It is indisputable that the on-going process is divided on two lines: the UPND/Church and some UPND affiliated political parties and CSOs on one side whose focus is the 2021 power transition, if it will happen, and the PF/ZCID and others parties and some CSOs who see this dialogue as one that should have been addressing constitutional, electoral and law reforms on the other. One chooses to be on either side depending on these two thematic goals being pursued by the lead parties.
Minister of Justice Given Lubinda has said Government will give direction in due course on the reform programme but what the Minister may need to remember, is that time does not wait for Government to give direction. The time is now and this process of reforming laws must happen, and happen now.
The views expressed in this article represent the views of the author and not necessarily the views of any institution the author may be affiliated to or this media