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Zambia’s President Faces Criticism For Threatening Opponents

Zambia’s President Levy Mwanawasa is reportedly under fire after threatening to charge opposition parties and some civic organizations of treason if they reject his government’s plans to amend the constitution. This comes after opposition parties in parliament rejected suggestions by the ruling Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD) that only certain portions of the current constitution should be amended.

Some critics of the president have called his threats dictatorial, which could potentially undermine the tenets of the country’s young democracy. The critics further questioned Mwanawasa's commitment to democracy, saying his government has failed to give ordinary Zambians a say in drafting a new constitution, a process that had been scheduled to start in August and will take about a year to complete. From Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, University of Zambia political science professor Fred Mtesa tells reporter Peter Clottey that Zambians would not succumb to the president’s threats.

“It’s not the first time we are hearing such threats from the president. One would put it down to his legal background. He normally does try to interpret the law himself, but in practice, we haven’t seen anybody charged with treason for criticizing the constitution making process,” Mtesa noted.

He cited one of the president’s ministers threatening in a similar fashion.

“There was a time, I think in the midst of the exercise when the Minister of Justice George Nkunda also threatened opposition members that were calling for changes in the (constitution making) process. He charged that they were committing treason, but again, nobody was specifically charged with that felony, and it didn’t silence critics of the government,” he said.

Mtesa said the president’s threat could possibly stifle dialogue, which he said is needed in the constitution making process.

“It’s not the kind of language that would facilitate dialogue, which this country needs so much at this critical hour in the constitution-making process,” Mtesa emphasized.

He said some opposition members are unhappy with the president’s threats.

“Already we’ve got some responses from members of the opposition groups in the country. Specifically, one very outspoken Member of Parliament belonging to the opposition, Given Lowinda, did answer immediately. I think the end effect is that President Mwanawasa’s statement is not going to silence critics of his government,” he pointed out.

Mtesa said although the president’s language is strong, Zambians would pay little heed to the threats.

“It is definitely a threat to democracy, and to dialogue. But I would not think it’s something unusual coming from President Mwanawasa. Sometimes he does tend to speak very strongly, but I think the people of Zambia have got to know him, and they are not cowed into fear,” Mtesa said.