CONSTITUTIONAL lawyer John Sangwa says the rank and dignity of State Counsel is not chivala mulomo, adding that being a member of the Law Association of Zambia (LAZ) does not abolish any lawyer’s freedom of expression.

And the renown lawyer says if the objective of the Letters Patent given to State Counsel is to stop the recipients from speaking out on governance issues, then he is willing to relinquish his Letters Patent, as it would be a form of corruption.

Earlier this week, President Edgar Lungu asked the newly-elected LAZ Executive to address the tendency by some State Counsel who are in the habit of openly “demonising the Executive” instead of putting their concerns in writing to the Office of the President.

Reacting to the development, Sangwa, who has previously accused President Lungu of trying to hold on to power beyond the Constitutional limit through a “strange interpretation” of some provisions of the Constitution and judgment of the Constitutional Court as well as through Bill 10, said the rank and dignity of State Counsel is not conferred to enable lawyers charge higher legal fees but in recognition of their contribution to the legal profession.

”People have misunderstood what it means to be State Counsel. You are given that title in recognition of your contribution to the legal profession. It doesn’t mean that it becomes kavala mulomo or chivala pa kwamwa [a silencing tool], no! If that is the intention, I would have no problem in surrendering my Letters Patent tomorrow. Being State Counsel is not just about charging higher legal fees and being given preference before the courts. It is also about using that rank and dignity for the good of the people. The President has misunderstood the role of State Counsel and why that rank and dignity is conferred. A state counsel is not a legal advisor to the Government. There is only one legal advisor to the Government and that is the Attorney general. But I have an obligation, as State Counsel, to serve the State when I am called upon. However, my primary responsibility is to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of Zambia as by law established and faithfully represent, to the best of my ability, without fear or favour of any person, before any Court of law.” Sangwa said.

”If it is designed to be a kavala mulomo so that you don’t criticise the state, so that you keep quiet in the face of injustice, I have no problems surrendering the Letters Patent tomorrow. The Letters Patent is not given to define you, it is given in recognition of what you have contributed to the development of the law and legal profession in the country. So it is not to ‘vala mulomo’; if it is, then that would be a form of corruption. If that’s the way they perceive it, then the rank and dignity of State Counsel is being given as a bribe. To suggest that because you are State Counsel, you should keep quiet, in the face of corruption, abuse of power, misrule and utter lawlessness. Then that instrument is given for the wrong purpose. In fact it is because of that status that one should speak out on behalf of those who are less privileged in our society in the hope that those in charge of Government will listen to you, the people who conferred the rank and dignity of State Counsel.”

Asked if LAZ had the legal framework for stopping State Counsel from openly criticising government, Sangwa said there is no such a legal framework, adding that the Association has no power to take away the freedom of expression from its members.

”I’m a human being first and I became a member of LAZ second. It doesn’t mean that I have forfeited my freedom of expression by being a member of LAZ. I still have those rights and nobody, not even LAZ can curtail those freedoms. In fact, the countries that have developed, have developed on account of people having divergent ideas. It’s different ideas and people’s ability to speak freely that built most progressive countries. Any serious country committed to the development of its people is expected to tap into the brains of its brightest people, and not to intimidate them. The country must make use of its brightest lawyers, doctors, engineers and other professionals. Some of us were privileged to go to UNZA for free. It wasn’t just to come and enrich ourselves. We have an obligation to find a way to give back to this country. And the knowledge I have acquired is not just meant to enable me charge higher legal fees It is about sharing my thoughts with the rest of the country. It is not about enriching oneself, no!” he said.

Sangwa said the need for State Counsel to protect the Constitution could never be over-emphasised.

”My primary responsibility [as a State Counsel] is to protect the Constitution, that’s all. When the Constitution is protected, everything else becomes possible in a country. That is all, I have no any other role to play. I mean, I have no problem if the government acts within the law and within the framework of the Constitution. The government will receive my support. I can’t comment about other people anyway, but I have never looked at the Letters Patent given to me as kavala mulomo, no! Letters Patent is not kavala mulomo, no! So let’s put things into correct context, that’s not what it’s intended for,” he said.

”It’s wrong to suggest that when you are a State Counsel, you become the Government’s cheerleader. You can’t sit in the front bench in court and charge a higher legal fees, but keep quiet when the country is on fire, when there is lawlessness in a country. No! First, there has to be rule of law. All those things are possible when there is constitutional rule, when the country is being run properly, when the country’s resources are equitably distributed and the less privileged amongst us are properly cared for by the State.”

Sangwa reminded President Lungu that he had personally written to him on three separate occasions during his presidency to share his thoughts on critical national issues. 

“The first letter was on the appointment of the Judges to the Constitutional Court. The second letter was to plead with the President not to change the Constitution as set out in the infamous Constitutional (Amendment) Bill No. 10. The last letter was on the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Head of State did not have the courtesy of acknowledging the correspondence,” he observed.

”How many times can one write to the President? I have written three letters to the President but he did not even have the courtesy of acknowledging. I occasionally speak to the Attorney General to share my thoughts on various national issues and the last discussion I had with him was over the VID-19. I implored him to urge those in government to control the movement of people within the country as part of the efforts to contain the spread of the virus.”

He said criticism was the lifeblood of any democracy.

“The point is that criticism, especially of those in power, is the lifeblood of any democratic system. It is a way of holding them accountable. If you don’t like criticism, leave the political scene and live a private life. If you are in politics, you are being paid by taxpayers you should expect to be held accountable. When you are a leader, your decisions affect me, therefore, you must be under a microscope. Every step you take must be checked to make sure that it is consistent with the law,” said Sangwa.