Diescho’s Dictum [column]

The Third Constitutional Amendments: a paradox or democracy? (part 1)

One of the greatest Western statesmen and nation builders, Sir Winston Churchill, once said: “Many forms of government have been, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The big political debate in Namibia’s body politic currently is around the third amendment to the Constitution of the Republic, that supreme law of the land. The first amendment was in December 1998 with the alignment of President Nujoma to serve for the third term as an exception. The second was in May 2010 with the realignment of local and regional structures to be in tandem with other governance regimens. Both these previous occasions were not as far reaching as the proposed third amendments. This time there is more public interest and concern and it is normal in the functioning of democracy to experience such growing pains. This is how the system reinvents itself and grows into maturity. In the process of building a nation with its changing cultures and expectations, there is bound to be contradictions, paradoxes and messiness.

It would be helpful for all to start from the premise that there is nothing sinister to the proposed amendments and consider the process as part of change for the better. On the part of the leadership it would be helpful to appreciate that the reactions from the public are in no way a sign or expression of disrespect, but a cry to participate which is necessary in a democratic process. By the looks of things, this is not what is happening at the moment, and the climate of the debate is not what it ought to be to bespeak a democratic process of give and take and dialogue. There seems to be an overreaction on both sides of the same coin: those pushing for the proposed amendments are becoming intolerant of the questions asked and as a result they become defensive whereas they ought to take charge of the conversation and direct it progressively towards change and progress. Nothing, even in democracy, remains unchanged and unchanging for ever! The Namibian Constitution such as it is must and will undergo changes from time to time and as circumstances and conditions in the lives of the Namibian citizens it serves change. Change is inevitable and a living constitution must breathe the times of change in order for it to remain organic.

Those who are questioning the process or opposing the changes go on the offensive that amounts to attacking characters of personalities rather than raise the issues of constitution and law. They perceive that the democratic values that the nation built and is respected for around the world are in danger. It is a good thing that this state-society engagement is taking place and in the format that it is before it can degenerate into what we saw during the Arab Spring starting in Tunisia in December 2010 and culminating in the humiliating demise of leaders Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the tragic death of Muammar Gadhafi of Libya. The fact that the changes were not finalized behind the scenes is one of the hallmarks of the growing democracy in Namibia. Thanks to both the leadership by way of the ruling party and opposition parties in the National Assembly on the one hand and civil society formations that are engaging the government on the other.

Let us now try to put what is going on into perspective: First, 2014 sees the third amendment proposals to the Constitution of the Republic of Namibia, adopted unanimously by the Constituent Assembly on 9 February 1990, the first of its kind in the history of Afrika’s Constitutional Democracy. There was never an exercise in Afrika similar to Namibia’s Constituent Assembly which operated under the aegis of international law, watched carefully by the international community at the time the whole world was reconfiguring with the tumbling down of the Berlin Wall (the Iron Curtain) in November 1989 while the constitution was being drafted and the dismantling of the Soviet Communist system which symbolised the beginning of the Novus Ordo Seculorum, the new world order without the infamous Cold War which divided the world into a two polar systems – the Soviet Communist system on the one hand and the American Capitalist system on the other.

It is important to bear in mind that Namibia’s ascendency to nationhood in the family of nations did not only vindicate the spirit of international solidarity against tyranny and for human rights, equality, national sovereignty and universal democratic rules of the governance, but also showcased Namibian leaders as beings second to none. Within 80 days, with minimal technical support from international scholars, they drafted and crafted the Constitution of the new Republic. One can only feel proud and humbled to have known many of these towering men and women from the nine political parties that qualified through a United Nations supervised all-race elections to be part of that Founding Assembly. These men and women put their personal and party interests aside and looked beyond themselves to create One Namibia, One Nation. The 72 Founding Fathers and Mothers of our Republic were possessed by a spirit of dedication and service to the nation, which is the first casualty of the so-called debate during 2014. What we are witnessing today is not a debate – it is political mud-slinging pure and simple. A debate is based upon an argument and an argument is informed by logic and logic derives from history, facts and a plausible outcome.

For the current discourse to have meaning, the processes ought to have been initiated by the proponents of the proposed amendments by taking the matter at hand to the people by way of simple explanations and clarifications as part of seeking their buy-in.

An observer does not know the extent to which the Law Reform Development Commission (LRDC) had conducted its consultations with the people on the ground. An observer has to take the LRDC at its word that it attempted to consult, but that participation by the people on the ground left much to be desired. An experienced observer of Afrikan politics is always aware of the low participation by the ordinary people in matters that do not affect their survival in the short term. This apathy on the part of the voting public was seen at last week Wednesday’s town meeting by the Prime Minister in Katutura. The participation was quantitatively impressive, but qualitatively very poor. Instead of engaging the Prime Minister and team on substantive issues of good governance versus politics power versus development bureaucracy versus service delivery party interests versus national interests comradeship versus merit the past versus the future progress versus stagnation and what we have learned as Afrikan people from our own failures and the devastating results across the Afrikan continent of pure lust for more power, the evening left people with more suspicion of one another, and more questions than answers. A debate is where two or three parties are willing to contribute to the richer understanding of a common problem with readiness to hear the other side and a determination to convince the other of one’s position. The haste to dismiss the other, malign the other, belittle the other, stigmatize the other and wish the other away cannot contribute to a meaningful debate, never mind to the outcome that is binding on all!

The first difficulty with Namibia’s constitutional amendments is the fact that they are meant to suit a particular leader or situation, not to improve the system and the manner in which the system responds to the issues or needs of the citizens. The first amendment was about getting the third term approved for President Nujoma, the second amendment was about President Pohamba’s executive powers to rein in regional administrations. The third amendments appear to be about giving the incoming President more powers.

This is typical of Afrikan politics generally, and is what leads invariably to state-community struggles on the continent. Whether leaders intend to do so or not, they tend to want to change laws to suit themselves, to make their rulership unencumbered by tenets of democracy. They end up increasing the bureaucracy around them so massively at the expense of economic development for their nations. And when people ask more questions, as they should, the leaders become more insecure and beleaguered so much so that what becomes the face of the state is the security apparatuses around His Excellency, the Head of State whose security is a whole employment complex altogether.

Correctly or incorrectly, this is what the people are sensing here, unfortunately. What must be borne in mind is that the citizens of this country in 2014 cannot feel or think the same as those in the times of the last two amendments.

People today, as citizens, have learned, have heard have seen and experienced more regarding politics here and around the world. Citizens’ consciousness as citizens with rights and a voice is rising. With this rising consciousness comes the demystification of liberation leaders as we have known them thus far. Citizens are becoming clearer of their own context and positioning themselves to deal more courageously with issues affecting the nation today – not the struggle of yesterday and yesteryear! In other words people are not against amendments per se, but want to be involved in the process that affects how their hard-earned tax money is spent by those whom they have entrusted with the responsibility to govern. Citizens are saying that by electing leaders to act on their behalf does not mean that they had surrendered their sovereignty to determine their affairs. In the age when information is everywhere at any time it is not easy for leaders to manufacture consent as people want to know and participate throughout the process of decision-making, be it continuity or change. As one placard put it: ‘Nothing about us without us!’ This is a hard tenor of democratic governance. What they are saying might be irritating to people in power and those at the gates of power, but these voices are part of the messiness of democracy and it is how it works, so that no one is left out. One only hopes that the language of protest will become more mature and does not move to character assassinations and banal politics of shouting.

On the other hand elected leaders have great difficulty treating people who elected them as their equal. Political leaders generally and Afrikan leaders specifically are encumbered with a disease of treating their voters as lessor beings than themselves, as people with lesser needs than themselves, who should give way when they move about and as a result loathe the irritations that accompany citizens’ voices when they cry out for accountability and better governance. This leads to pessimism, which is an indictment of Afrikan leaders, and when political observers point this out they are labelled Afro-pessimists. The point however that is the majority of Afrikan dwellers can only be pessimistic at the hands of their leaders as optimism is the luxury of those in power or those connected to power through tenderpreneurship. This is why citizens of some Afrikan countries say ‘When will this independence be over?’ (To be continued)

Source : New Era

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