Zambia: whence salvation? Political tensions remain and President Mwanawasa's popularity has hit a low ebb. A national conference he called last month has not helped matters either.

Author:Geloo, Zarina
Position:Around Africa

In an attempt to lessen the political tensions in the country and woo acceptability for his administration, President Levy Mwanawasa called a four-day national conference in October, but it was roundly boycotted by all who matter in Zambian politics.

The conference cost US$1.5 million, but it had little to show at the end of the day. The country is as divided as ever over Mwanawasa's tenure of office (because of the disputed election results that brought him to power in January 2002) and his style of rule.

The main opposition parties, churches, civil society groups (including the influential OASIS Forum which represents lawyers and civic bodies), and the Non Governmental Coordinating Committee (NGOCC) and its affiliates, all boycotted the conference, citing the lack of a clear agenda. They said the agenda was overloaded and there was also a dubious selection of delegates.

The conference, dubbed "The Indaba", did not offer any new ideas on how the nation could move forward, Instead, it was dominated by the same old issues that civil society had long championed--that Mwanawasa should allow for a constituent assembly to adopt a new constitution now under review by the Constitution Review Commission, reduce the size of his cabinet, and institute electoral reforms that would ensure that an elected president received more than 50% of the votes cast.

Mwanawasa won the last presidential election with less than 30% of the vote.

In recent weeks, his office has been bombarded with calls by civil society for political reforms. In addition, there has been a countrywide strike by public sector workers demanding better pay.

And the troubles are piling up: the ruling Movement for Multi-Party Democracy (MMD) party is split down the middle, alienating the president further. As it that is not enough, the country's donors have frozen their aid because of what they describe as "financial indiscipline" following an unexpected budget overrun of US$1.2m.

According to Florence Chibwesha of the NGOCC, the president had his own objectives for the conference. "The agenda was too wide for any meaningful debate," says Chibwesha. "The country is facing serious challenges over the constitution...

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