About the Author: Sharon Hudson-Dean serves as Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Last week, my office hosted an expert on constitutional issues from the New School for Social Research in New York City for a week of meetings, public discussions and consultations on international best practices to feed into the constitution-making process in Zimbabwe. We brought Dr. Andrew Arato here as part of our U.S. Speaker's program and as an independent expert who could share his experience and views with Zimbabwean colleagues and audiences outside our delicate government-to-government conversations.
For me and for all of our audiences, the visit was a crash course in comparative constitutions, with a wonderful dose of nitty-gritty local analysis by the professor. Dr. Arato is a Hungarian-American who has studied the tricky process of modern constitution-making in Hungary, Poland, South Africa, Nepal, India and a few Latin American countries. He can explain the intricacies, successes, and failures of all of these with a heavy emphasis on the practical side of how democracies need and use these fundamental documents.
Dr. Arato proved to be a truly relevant U.S. speaker for this critical point in time in Zimbabwe's history. For the last five months, the country has undergone a massive public outreach process -- a series of public meetings organized by a UN-supported parliamentary committee to gather the views of nearly one million people on the ground about what should be in the constitution. The current constitution was written in the UK in 1979 as part of a peace agreement to end the long Rhodesian civil war -- it has been amended 19 times and, according to Dr. Arato, is a terrible constitution in desperate need of replacement.
The constitutional outreach process has had mixed reviews and received harsh criticism of the ways in which political parties have coached people to push party views during the meetings, including during the prayers that open and close the gatherings. Cases of violence and intimidation in meetings have also been widely reported, especially in Harare, where the first round of meetings had to be scrapped and redone. Ultimately, as Dr. Arato repeatedly emphasized in his discussions with civil society, journalists, and political contacts, the new draft constitution must be a workable document that gets approved by the Parliament and the people. The only other option is to keep the current constitution, with its lack of basic civil rights and other problems -- an unacceptable outcome, if the country is to truly move forward in democratic development.
Dr. Arato drew upon examples from South Africa, whose constitutional process is a familiar model to local audiences, to emphasize that civil society must engage in the process in Zimbabwe. Now that the outreach programs are finished in Zimbabwe, 17 thematic committees are meeting to hammer out the key issues and substance to be given to the drafting committee. Civil society groups have prominent roles here and should make sure that their issues and goals for the Zimbabwean people are included. While politicians may try to take control of the process, this is the time to keep the NGO eye on the ball. If NGOs and civil society choose to stand on the side, criticize the process, or call for a "No" vote, then the whole country goes back to square one -- which, Arato argues, is something it can ill-afford after 30 years of political instability founded on a bad constitution.