Just as guardians of the castle walls cannot afford to snatch a few minutes of sleep during a lonely night shift, Zambia’s fledgling Chapter One Foundation has committed itself to staying wide awake to protect the Constitution and a free civic space for all citizens, reports Tony Carnie.
No governments anywhere in the world are perfect, so protecting the space for democratic freedoms and the rule of law is a “never-ending journey” says Linda Kasonde, a prominent Lusaka lawyer, civil rights activist and founding director of the Chapter One Foundation that was established in July 2019, along with the firm LCK Chambers.
The foundation takes its name from the first chapter of the Laws of Zambia which contains the Constitution, the supreme law by which every Zambian, regardless of status, is bound.
“We at Chapter One Foundation take our constitutional duty to uphold and defend the Constitution very seriously,” said Kasonde, who set up the Foundation at a time when there were too few voices in civil society speaking out in an era of increasing political authoritarianism.
Though she described herself in a recent TEDx talk, as “quiet, private and introverted” as a schoolgirl, Kasonde soon found her voice as an advocate for women’s empowerment and human rights through the volunteer work she did on various committees and on the Council of the Law Association of Zambia, the country’s national Bar association.
Elected as the first woman president of the Law Association of Zambia in 2016, Kasonde is also the first Zambian elected as Vice-President (Africa) of the Commonwealth Lawyers Association.
Now, almost three years since it was started, Chapter One has chalked up several victories during a series of legal actions and lobbying campaigns.
One of the first victories came in 2020 when the foundation successfully beat back two attempts to amend the Constitution that would have entrenched authoritarian rule. In August 2021, the Zambian government clamped down on media freedom and shut down the internet on polling day during the general election. All social media platforms – from WhatsApp to Signal – were closed down. Chapter One rushed to the High Court and secured an order to restore the internet the following day.
In the run up to the 2021 general election, the foundation arranged pro bono legal representation for several human rights defenders accused of criminal defamation, sedition, unlawful assembly, or defaming (then) President Edgar Lungu.
It also challenged attempts by Lungu to stand for a third presidential term and has fought to compel all ministers and several public officials to comply with mandatory statutory provisions to make annual declarations of all their assets, liabilities, and sources of income in the interests of transparency. So far, only two out of 38 relevant officials have made full declarations.
More recently, under the new administration of President Hakainde Hichilema, Chapter One and other NGOs have mounted a campaign to ensure a continuous voter registration process for all Zambians.
Kasonde acknowledges that establishing and leading the start-up had been “one of the most challenging things (she has) had to do”.
“It’s been very time consuming. There is also a lot of pressure ... both political as well as workwise. So, this year I’ve made a deliberate effort to downscale the things I can do. I’ve started exercising more and I’m trying to remind myself that there is life outside of work.”
While the foundation is not a legal aid clinic, it has also established a Legal Defence Fund, and is training young lawyers and law students to lead the Chapter Ones of the future.
“We don’t want to be the only organisation of our kind, because I think that makes us very vulnerable,” she concluded
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