Zambia’s Sugo Fiasco: Interpreting the constitution’s Grade 12 requirement


In the recent constitution amendment signed by President Edgar Lungu is a provision that is both absurd and confusing. According to Article 70 (1) (d), a person is eligible to be elected as a Member of Parliament, if that person “has obtained, as a minimum academic qualification, a grade twelve certificate or its equivalent”. This provision has sent shivers and panic, no less, among the very parliamentarians that passed the constitution. Some quarters are even suggesting that candidates should produce their grade twelve certificates if they are to stand for political office. I submit that the Zambian courts will have to provide a more creative interpretation of this provision if we are to avoid the mess it has brought. However, today, I just want to dispel a few fears.

Is grade twelve the academic qualification for political office? No, the constitution is clear; a grade twelve certificate is the minimum academic qualification. So a person does not need to produce this minimum qualification if they have a superior qualification.

Can a person have a higher academic qualification if they did not complete grade twelve? Yes, in fact many of our senior judges, lawyers and senior civil servants in Zambia never completed grade twelve as they never went to secondary school. Kenneth Kaunda trained as a school teacher and yet he did not have a grade twelve education. Frederick Chiluba graduated from Warwick University with a Master of Philosophy degree and yet he never had a grade twelve education. It is possible for a person to not complete grade twelve and yet have academic qualifications that are superior to it. If Kaunda, Mainza Chona or Chiluba were to stand as MPs under the current constitution, they would not have to show a grade twelve certificate, all they would need to show are their tertiary qualifications.

How can a person have tertiary education if they do not have secondary education?This is what confuses many. In the real world, it does not take secondary education to do tertiary education. In fact, Zambian universities and colleges can admit students on mature entry status who do not possess a grade twelve education. Those graduates would still have an education that is superior to a grade twelve certificate and can qualify to stand based on Article 70 (1) (d).

Some institutions demand grade twelve even from those with superior degrees, isn’t the constitution saying the same thing? Article 70 (1) (d) does not state that a candidate must have a grade twelve education as well as other education. It simply states the minimum. It can also be noted that the Article is referring to a “certificate”, and not to an “education”. So it is not asking for a grade twelve education, but a grade twelve certificate. A grade twelve certificate can be obtained without twelve years of education and in fact, even a superior qualification can be obtained in its place. While it is true that ZIALE, as an example, demands grade twelve certificate in addition to a bachelor of laws degree in its admission requirements, this is different from what 70 (1) (d) is requiring. With due respect, you cannot interpret the constitution on the basis of discriminatory practices of bodies such as ZIALE or the Nursing Council of Zambia.


Can trades certificate and diplomas qualify as superior to grade twelve education? We might have to wait for a court ruling on this one, but the old myth that trades and vocational education is not academic enough has long been dispelled. Vocational training and the trades are as academic as a university education. All tertiary education in Zambia is superior to secondary education. Education in Zambia is roughly demarcated as follows: primary, secondary and tertiary education, in the level of their superiority. 70 (1) (d) makes secondary education the minimum, meaning all those with tertiary education do qualify to stand. To say that a person cannot have tertiary education unless they have secondary education is as ridiculous as suggesting that for one to have secondary education they must first have primary education. There are clear instances where a person without primary education due to circumstances beyond their control would go straight to secondary education. Trades certificates such as diplomas and certificates in plumbing, cooking, and joinery from a recognised institution of training in Zambia is academically superior to any secondary education.

There is a lot to say about the grade twelve qualification. It is absurd and if it came up before the constitutional court, it will be interpreted very liberally so as to allow more people to qualify to stand as political leaders. It is certainly absurd to demand that councillors in Milenge have a grade twelve certificate when secondary school arrived there only very recently. Let us end here for now and see how this sugo fiasco plays out.

Editorial Note: Elias Munshya holds three degrees in law and is currently undergoing the bar admission process in the jurisdiction of Alberta. Those personally affected by the issues raised in this article are encouraged to consult members of the Zambian bar for legal advice specific to their situation.

Elias Munshya, LLM, M.A., MBA, M.Div.