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Why do we need political dialogue?

It is very clear that Edgar Lungu doesn’t want the Commonwealth to spearhead political dialogue in Zambia. He wants the Zambia Centre for Interparty Dialogue. Why? And Hakainde Hichilema doesn’t want the Zambia Centre for Interparty Dialogue but the Commonwealth.

We wonder what has gone wrong with the Commonwealth! All along, both sides have been meeting with the Commonwealth envoy on dialogue, Prof Ibrahim Gambari, and pledged commitment to the dialogue process he was facilitating. Right from beginning, we knew that Edgar and the Patriotic Front were not really committed to this dialogue process. They don’t want it. Edgar cannot agree to the key subject of this dialogue process, which is a change to the whole electoral system ahead of 2021. That is where his survival lies.
Now they have to come up with delaying tactics to frustrate other parties to this dialogue.

Political dialogue involves a wide range of activities, from high-level negotiations to mediation, to attempts at reconciliation. Political dialogue must be political in nature and aimed at addressing threats in a society which can cause a lapse or relapse into open tension, antagonism or conflict.
The objective of political dialogue is to achieve practical and peaceful solutions to differences. At a deeper level, the aim is to address conflict drivers and foster reconciliation, build a greater national consensus and social cohesion, and define a shared vision of the future.
We need political dialogue because most of our regular state institutions are not functioning properly because they have been compromised by political bias, corruption, and inefficiency. We need political dialogue to strengthen the legitimacy of institutions by building consensus on and trust in their proper functioning. The credibility of our courts, police and other law enforcement agencies and even the Electoral Commission of Zambia is in tatters.

As a result, political dialogue in all its forms is needed to play an indispensible role in the efforts to respond to these frightening political differences, tensions and to build national vision. If we are going to have meaningful dialogue, there’s need to avoid stiff-neckedness and be flexible. This is so because political dialogue takes place in many forms; is initiated and facilitated by a variety of actors; and takes place at various levels of society.

High-level dialogue involving the top leadership of our political parties cannot be avoided. Given the tensions among our top political leaders, there’s nothing wrong with this being mediated by the international community. From the behaviour of the key political leadership, especially Edgar, it’s clear that this is high-risk dialogue, with much at stake. There are fears of losing power if, for instance, the public order Act, the electoral processes and the judicial process are reformed.

We also need some interventions by some civil society organisations that can help provide discreet and relatively low-risk opportunities to explore options, and build trust in the process of dialogue. We may need multi-level dialogue, where dialogue takes place at various levels of society in an effort to engage citizens in building sufficient national consensus on critical challenges.

Let’s not cheat ourselves that it is going to be easy. Political dialogue is a complex political and psychological process. An under-estimation of its complexity will result in total failure. Moreover, pursuing dialogue in inappropriate manners and at inappropriate times may do harm because of the way it reduces confidence, increases cynicism.

There’s need for adequate preparation. There’s need to clearly understand the interests and fears of each group. It is crucial to have a skilled facilitator that all parties accept and feel comfortable with in order to make the process as fair and even-handed as possible. We are not seeing sufficient political commitment, especially from Edgar. Political will is important for the dialogue to reach inclusive agreements; and for effective implementation.

We know that political commitment is influenced by internal and external political pressure; but is strongest when those involved enjoy a sense of
ownership of the dialogue process. But no one should be cheated or cheat oneself – these political differences can be resolved through a one-off dialogue event. There has to be an ongoing, multi-faceted and multi-level dialogue process. Building sufficient social cohesion and functional democratic institutions in a nation where corruption and political clienteleism have destroyed them requires a lot of effort and time.
Political dialogue, in other words, has to be sustained across all the levels of society for a prolonged period of time.
We therefore need to invest long-term in our capacity to conduct political dialogue.

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