The sudden about turn by the Zambian President Michael Sata on enacting a new constitution has not only eroded his credibility but is galvanizing the kind of opposition that could see him lose office in the 2016 general election. He obviously senses the danger and has mounted some rear-guard actions.
The Catholic FM radio for eastern Zambia recently reported on March 30th of a homily by the Catholic bishop of eastern Zambia, the Rt.-Rev George Lungu in which he disclosed that he had received an angry and threatening telephone call from the president who warned him to stay clear of the constitution debate or else ...
His government has, in contravention of the terms of reference (which called for the simultaneous release of the draft to the administration and the public), withheld publication of the final draft constitution and there is mounting pressure for its release.
The president appears to have been alarmed by a "successful" meeting of an NGO Coalition at a parish in Chipata, the Eastern Province capital to press for the immediate release of the draft. The meeting had the blessing of the bishop who maintains that people have the right to make that demand.
There is a strong view in Zambia that distortions and other shortcomings in previous constitutions resulted from the administration having the last word on their drafting. This time, to ensure that history did not repeat itself, the government would not have a veto. Instead, the draft would be submitted to a referendum.
The last minute failure by the government to uphold that path was met with widespread disappointment and anger. Government has become increasingly furtive and is attempting to manufacture doubt over the issue, when none should exist.
For instance, following the "dismissal" of the drafting committee at the end of March, it was not clear what the state of play now was: while the committee said it had handed over the draft to the Justice Ministry; the Ministry repeatedly denied that this had taken place.
The shifting of goal posts has been damaging and has discredited the president like no other issue - when he was in opposition he was the champion of a new constitution.
He was also a vocal critic of the current constitution and repeatedly promised to bring to a swift conclusion the tortuous constitution-making process (on-going since 2003).
He seemed on track when in one of his earliest actions in office he appointed a drafting committee headed by the former Chief Justice, Annel Silungwe. In his more extravagant moments, Mr.Sata had promised a new constitution within 90 days! In practice, the final draft was ready only last October.
But as the release was imminent, the president changed tack. He now forbade publication of the draft altogether and further decreed that only ten copies be printed.
His position shifted to there being no hurry because there was, after all, a constitution in force. He has also claimed that the process has been hijacked:
"The constitution-making process has been hijacked by individuals whose objective is to embarrass, humiliate and politically undermine the public will ... It will be highly irresponsible for us ... to authorize the release of this document before it goes through cabinet ... the country already has a functional constitution and the state will not be pushed into fast and reckless conclusions ... " he said.
The ready retort from the NGOs was that it was he who had hijacked it. The President went further on February 13th when he ordered that those calling for a new constitution should be ignored:
"Ignore those who are talking about it every day. We already have a constitution," he said.
The volte-face was astonishing. Speculation is that there is discomfort with the new requirement that presidential candidates should garner 50%+1 vote to be elected and with the new provision for ministers be appointed from outside parliament.
His erstwhile allies the NGOs were outraged by his change of heart. They insisted that he should be made to keep his election promise and immediately began to mobilize public support for the release of the draft and the appointment of a referendum commission.
On January 4th, a consortium of NGOs launched the campaign at a prayer meeting in the Anglican Cathedral in Lusaka which was promptly ringed by riot-ready police. Under Mr. Sata, the police have been transformed into his first line of defence against political opposition and dissent.
Police have disallowed virtually every planned public meeting of the opposition and have been quick to arrest opposition leaders on questionable grounds.
Last Christmas, for instance, Nevers Mumba who leads the opposition Movement for Multi-party Democracy (MMD), was arrested amidst a show of force by the police who proceeded to lock him up for the night. But in court, the state offered no evidence and instead applied for the matter to be discontinued!
Since the Cathedral meeting, the NGOs have continued to mobilize. They have growing public support and the authorities seem increasingly nervous.
The incident with the bishop betrayed a new level of desperation. Mr. Sata is a practicing Catholic and would not have wanted to once more cross swords with Bishop Lungu so soon after their protracted face-off over the deportation in 2012 of a Rwandan priest.
Fr. Viateur Banyandora was picked up from his parish, driven to Lusaka by night, classified a "danger to good order "on the basis of a homily he had delivered and was promptly thrown out of Zambia.
The Church refused to accept the deportation and bishop Lungu, who led the charge, maintained that it was no more than abduction. In a major climb down, the deportation was rescinded and the priest is back. But for the growing pressure from the campaign, the president would most likely have preferred to have kept his distance.
His attempts to discredit it as a "misplaced crusade" have not worked. It is strengthening. At the end of February, it received free publicity when on two consecutive days, opposition MPs disrupted proceedings in the national assembly as they demanded clarity on the constitution. There could be no downplaying the unprecedented protest that resonated outside the House.
Going forward, government plans are unclear. But the scales are such that credit for any forward movement will go to the NGOs, while distrust for the government is more likely to deepen.
For a president who was elected on only 43% of the vote, Mr. Sata may have shot himself in the foot, perhaps mortally.
Arthur Simuchoba is a Zambian journalist. This article was commission via the African Journalism Fund.