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FEW people realise how important the Constitution is until it is suspended in either a military coup or other militant uprising (called putsch). When a legitimately elected government is overthrown, suspending the constitution means that all established guarantees, freedoms and rights become instantly non-existent. This grim scenario can be unpleasant, often dangerous and unpredictable.

Unless such an event is sponsored by external interests, it is here that a country will rely on its neighbours, regional and international institutions to intervene and help to restore order. Intervention becomes challenging if the civilian government has already been overthrown because the new leaders quickly understand the risk to their own lives if they give up power. 

Some plotters will try to portray such events as transitional and necessary to save the country from political shortcomings of the (former) ruling class.

However, the difference between an elected (civilian) government and one born from a coup is that one represents national interest through the electoral mechanism, while the other does not. By observation, even the most succesful coups are rarely supported by everyone in the armed forces. Furthermore, the armed forces, in totality are only a fraction of the population of most countries. Therefore, succesful or not, a coup d’état is ultimately a forced rule by the minority against national interest and consequently contrary to the Constitution of most nations.

In Africa, there appears to be strong inclination to national consensus than disunity in recent times. In Nigeria Olusegun Obasanjo and Muhammadu Buhari seized power militarily in the 1970s and 1980s but returned as civilian Heads of State decades later through the ballot. The same happened in Ghana when flight lieutenant Jerry Rawlings eventually held elections to assume national legitimacy and international recognition after coming to power in a coup earlier in 1979. This trend almost proposes that national interest cannot be undermined for long or forcibly curtailed. Examples can be presented, for and against, but national consensus wins almost all the time.

Even Egypt, with its strong military became susceptible to the Arab spring which consensus removed the ruling military from office and elected a civilian leader; albeit for a very brief moment. Even though the military returned to power, it shows that national interest – among civilians – can be a powerful seismic shift.

As a practical example, the Constitution of Zambia has been imbued with two transcendent pillars or principals since independence in 1964 and the return to democracy in 1991. These principles have not changed irrespective of amendments to the Constitution between 1963 and 2016. The two principles are: The Pre-eminence of National Interest and the Supremacy of civilian rule.

The first principle of National Interest has its roots in representative politics which asserts that the whole community cannot lead at the same time. A person or persons must be chosen to represent the interests of the many for a given period. As communities evolve and grow, those simple interests also grow so that they must be institutionalized (or recorded) and protected.

In our Constitution the Executive and Legislature are expressed as offices created to benefit the people of Zambia (in Part VII and Part V, respectively). This direct link to the citizens expresses the pre-eminence of national interest in the creation and function of these offices including the Judiciary. In other words, the State exists because of national interest. In this Constitutional setting, the head of the executive – the President- is and has always been the commander in chief of the armed forces. Logically then, armed forces are meant to protect public interest, not undermine it.

The Executive and Legislature, who represent people do so for the interest of the public – the public good of the nation. National interests in a democratic state are born out of the public good. This is the fundamental difference between this and a one-party state.

The second principle is the Supremacy of civilian rule which is summarized in Article 191(a) and reads that the defence forces serve national interest and are ësubordinate to civilian authority, as vested in the State Organs…’

This means that if an elected government betrays national interest, it is not the role of the army to undercut the power structure, that role belongs to the electorate. Some countries actually permit snap elections to be called when the Executive or those in office appear detached from national interest or if that national interest, as anchored by law is threatened.

It is here we must respect the decision of the founding President of Zambia in 1990 to allow national interest to prevail and return the Constitution to the people after 17 years of the one-party state. Paradoxically, it is here we equally acknowledge and respect the decision by the founding father of democracy and Second Republican President to abandon the third term (debate) and allow national interest to prevail. Two different eras, two opposing political philosophies, but obedient to national interest in the final analysis.

How we interpret the two events is a matter of choice and preference; the fact is, both understood the value of national interest at the most crucial points in history. Because of this history, Zambia had the right credentials to propose in Algeria 1992 that no military ruler should sit among elected officials at the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). The African Union (AU)’s African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. The modern world now equates civilian rule to constitutional order and will react if there is variance or disparity to this norm.

To conclude without saluting the discipline of the Zambian armed forces would be an irretrievable error. We are one of the most active nations at the ballot, a beacon of peace and paragon of democracy even unto being democratic militants. We are able to exercise these civic rights partly because we know that the ammunition of the armed forces is to protect and serve the nation.

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