The Zambian Constitution Debate part 1: Who are the People?

By Chanda Chisala, 4 June 2007
The first thing I need to clear out of the way as I put forward my thoughts on this contentious issue is the question of who the people of Zambia are. This is indeed an appropriate starting point because the constitution begins with the collective phrase, "we, the people".

The reason this should be cleared is because it is the favorite "argument" of most "intellectuals" in this controversial constitutional debate going on in our nation. They want to bully their opinions on everyone else by simply asserting that their opinion is the opinion of "the people". Apparently those of us who disagree with them are not part of the people, so it would be interesting to note how they define that term.

In philosophy, there is a name for this kind of fallacy. It's called "argumentum ad populum" (Latin for "appeal to the people"). Logicians identified this kind of fallacy a long, long time ago, which shows that this is not the first time some people are trying to employ such a tactic to push their opinion onto everyone else. It's a fallacy because it acts as a substitute for an intelligent argument in the hope that it will not be identified for what it really is: a diversion from the real debate itself. Whenever it is used so frequently, it only betrays a total failure of logical argumentation on the part of its users, particularly if the opinion of many people on the issue does not even change its rightness.

If you observe the constitutional debate, this is exactly what is going on. I think it's very possible that those who are opposed to president Mwanawasa on this issue have a valid position, but the only problem is that we have not seen any real arguments from them, except their aggressive insistence that their position represents "the will of the people." And the real problem with that claim is that it is totally false. Just because there were some people who submitted (to the Mungomba Constitutional Review Commission or CRC) that the constitution should be adopted through a constituent assembly (just over 2000 Zambians out of more than 8000 who submitted) does not mean that this is the desire of "the people". Since when did 2000 people represent all of Zambia? Even if the people who submitted to the CRC are taken as a valid statistical sample, it is by no means the majority who said they wanted the CA. And how do we even know whether these people were not sponsored by the same NGOs and donors who believe so religiously in this mode of adoption so that they could subsequently claim that "the people" want this mode of adoption?

The fact is that there were many more people who did not say they wanted the Constituent Assembly, and if this was as critical as some are making it seem, one would have expected the majority of those who submitted to the CRC to have indeed mentioned it. From the way our "civil society" leaders are proclaiming this song, one would think that every single Zambian wants the Constituent Assembly even more than they want the constitution itself.

You see, this idea of looking at the number of people who said that they want a constituent assembly while ignoring those who did not say anything on this issue is a very dishonest attempt at deception. The fact that the others did not mention the Constituent Assembly could mean that they disagree with it, or that they have no opinion on it, or something else. You simply can't tell. There were many people who submitted that they wanted Zambia to be declared a secular state instead of its current Christian nation status, and the rest (the majority) did not say anything about this issue, just like they did not say anything about the Constituent Assembly. When the same "civil society" leaders started claiming that this shows that the people of Zambia do not want Zambia to remain a Christian nation, the Christian leaders were annoyed and organized their church members to aggressively protest this. The civil society leaders have since stopped making that claim and have quietly allowed the Mungomba CRC to sneak the pro-Christian nation clause into their final draft of recommendations, in spite of the fact that "the people" said they did not want it to continue. Had these civil society leaders of ours been truly principled on the issue of what "the people" want, as supposedly evidenced by submissions to the CRC, they would have kept on the fight to keep the Christian declaration out. Can any of them explain why the CRC submissions are a final authority on what the people want in one case (the CA), but not an authority in another case (the Christian Declaration)? I doubt that any of them will respond to that challenge, simply because it will involve conceding a contradiction. Everyone is apparently determined to "win" this debate no matter how contradictory their position is and that's a dangerous state for a civilized nation to find itself in.

The fact is that "the people" is a false argument, no matter who is using it. The only way we can know the view of the people is through a referendum or through elections, and so on. And this is because they do say what their opinion is themselves, instead of someone claiming to speak for them through a newspaper column, or from a conference room at the Pamodzi Hotel.

My honest guess is that most of the people of Zambia do not know what a Constituent Assembly is, what its difference is with Parliament, where else it has existed, and so on; the concept of a Constituent Assembly is too pedantic for the average Zambian (the people) to have any opinion on. Therefore anyone who is claiming that "the people" want a constituent assembly, or even that the people don't want a constituent assembly, is just plain lying at this stage. Why can't we all just be honest and leave the people out of this?

Why can't people just learn to argue their points intelligently and show us objectively why a Constituent Assembly would be superior to any other alternatives? So far I have not seen any argument besides "the people" fallacy. A real argument would involve citing examples of countries that have used a Constituent Assembly, contrasted with those that have not used a Constituent Assembly, and a clear demonstration of how the latter have continued to suffer one thing or the other as a result of this omission. Any other way is simply intellectual bullying and it is not fair on those who have a different opinion.

Intellectual bullying results from intellectual dishonesty. I think the "civil society" leaders who are running to "the people" fallacy have seen that they can not actually present any evidence to show that a constituent assembly is necessarily superior except for their assertions that it is. They have looked around and noticed that there is no demonstrable difference between those countries that adopted their constitutions through a constituent assembly and those that have not (the majority, in fact). There is no difference in their economic successes, their political successes, or indeed their social successes.

In fact, there is no difference even in the ease of adoption when a constituent assembly is the preferred mode. As far as I know, Israel has tried to use a Constituent Assembly for their constitution and they have still failed to agree on the contents of the final document. For over fifty years the people of Israel have failed to have a real constitution, despite trying to use a constituent assembly several times. This is just one example of a country that would give the pro-CA side a problem in establishing their argument empirically to those who are not yet convinced.

But what I want to know is just how these few ladies and gentlemen from the NGO-world decided that those of us who don't care about the constituent assembly are NOT part of "the people of Zambia". I know when they read this article, they will simply say that the writer is a stooge of the MMD or of president Mwanawasa or "the imperialists" or something like that, but again this shows a failure to debate intelligently and it only adds to the arsenal of fallacies employed by them to bully their position across. Attacking a person (argumentum ad hominem) does not change the validity of the point he has made and it is only dull people - the intellectually challenged - who use such tactics in place of real debate. Their hope is always to sway their fellow dull people into thinking that they have defeated the position of their opponent (by simply charging that "he's a stooge" or "he's been paid," and so on). This way, they gain more blind supporters for their unproven position and it gives them greater confidence to just continue lying that "this is what the people want."

This, unfortunately, is how our "intellectuals" are absconding from the moral responsibility of actually using their intellect.

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