On 21 May 2010, the Malawi Parliament moved into its own new permanent and purposely built home, courtesy of the Chinese Government benevolence who pumped in K6 billion to transform Malawi’s capital city’s presidential way.
The completion of the purpose built home of the national legislative body, augurs well with the proclaimed equality of the three branches of Government in a democracy namely Parliament, Executive and The Judiciary. Only the Executive had a permanent seat called Capital Hill.
The expectations of a new era of a democratic and civilized politics were also raised days later on Tuesday, 25th May 2010, when in a landmark speech to parliament titled One People, One Nation, President Bingu wa Mutharika called Malawians to bury the past.
“We have to move forward. We must come out of the past. We cannot live in the past permanently. The past belongs to history. There is no room in Malawi for politics of hatred. There is no room in Malawi for politics of vengeance or retribution,” said the Statesman in Mutharika that day.
The ugly past of Malawi politics refused to go in 2010. Seven months after the historic speech, the language and tone of parliament has failed to change or reflect anything of it. The worst culprit is the President’s own Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) where hackling each other, beating presumed enemies, and public rallies denouncing its own former leaders are part of its core agenda.
“We need to cultivate the spirit of love, understanding, tolerance and accommodation. We must find a modus Vivendi for all of us to live together under one roof as one people and one nation,” argued Mutharika to a listening parliament which included Archbishop Tarsizius Ziyaye who kept nodding his head in total agreement.
There was a heavy rapture of applause from both sides of the house at end of the speech. It sad to say today that such a great speech ended the same moment, the President closed his mouth. Actions speak louder than words.
The Order paper distributed the following morning, confirmed the fears that had been speculation. The symbol of Malawi was set to change. The usual black, red and green with a rising sun was set to disappear.
The budget too was passed at a very supersonic speed with K252 billion passed in two hours. A record beating even a communist country like Cuba.
The Government wanted the flag to change. The justification hazy but it had to be done. At the height of it all while the bill was pending in parliament, the President at Kamuzu International Airport called his critics “drunks” who were at Bwandilo when his lieutenant, then Information Minister Leckford Thoto was going around staging consultations the country’s unelected voices in the name of Chiefs.
The main argument for such unpopular move was that Malawi had transformed, a very searching reasoning as maternal mortality hovers at 500 per 100,000 deliveries, water, electricity, foreign exchange and fuel are no longer a readily commodity.
The bill came one Friday morning, bulldozed and passed it. The Malawi Congress Party (MCP) boycotted the process. On Saturday, the new flag of a full white sun was flying in Lilongwe.
The flag amendment reflects how business will be done in the new era of a ruling party majority. A direct copy cat of the 2004-2009 when the opposition bulled the Government into submission just because of its own majority.
Parliament has passed very unpopular amendments within its short time including the amendment to Leader of Opposition which was quashed by the High Court, the Local Government Act amendment which gave MP’s double powers as they can vote on a legislation and go into a local council and vote on its implementation again.
The partisan interests in parliament have not disappeared, as both Government benches and Opposition continue to pursue their “attack and dress down” philosophy that many times, very constructive arguments are denied just simply because the proposer is sitting on the wrong side of the house.
The concept of an oval shaped sitting arrangement came with the Late Rodwell Munyenyembe and he kept defending it as the most appropriate in a multiparty democracy as opposed to confrontational Westminster sitting arrangement. Sadly the shouting’s and hecklings continued in 2010 from both sides.
The change in Government leadership in the House also worsened matters, as mainly the new Leader of the House failed to command the same respect his predecessors enjoyed, while the new Government whip is associated with noise making than constructive argument.
Deputy Leader of the House Ken Kandodo and Deputy Whip Annah Kachikho exceptionally provided Leadership when demanded to do so by the absence of their seniors.
Speaker of Parliament Henry Chimunthu Banda stood up with quality leadership, his Deputy Jones Chingola enjoyed his second term experience with a few partisan outlook. It is the Second Deputy Speaker Juliana Mphande who needs to spend more time reading standing orders and parliamentary records for her to assert authority when managing the house.
There is a long way to go to shape our parliament to move it back from the powers that be and take it to those who elect them.
However, the politics, amendments aside, Parliament administrative and committees, were its strongest points. In Committees, partisan interest disappeared and a fair and constructive assessment of issues emerged.
The committees critiqued Ministries with professional inputs, provided opportunities to civic groups to present their voices and in most cases the reports tabled during the last meeting of 2010, were mainly a greater reflection of the public.
Only two committees this year were a big let down. The Budget and Finance Committee after consulting on pension bill inserted a very selfish clause- that Parliamentarians should be exempted from its application. The powers that be were bringing inequality into Malawian society. The theory of creating a law for the citizenry and another for the law makers has never been heard in a democracy.
The second let down came from the Appointments and Declaration of Assests Committee.
In a country which minimum wage is at K4, 500 per month, around 52 percent living below poverty and a junior civil servant including Teachers, Nurses and Extension workers go home with on K10, 000 after deductions they are proposing a multimillion kwacha annual package for themselves.
The hope is that the report will never see its day in Parliament.
Outside the chamber, the Administration of Parliament performed exceptionally well, with lesser scandals and Clerk of Parliament Maltida Katopola inserted her authority in most lacking departments, reigning in some cases of indiscipline and improving Secretariat efficiency both to the public and parliamentarians.
Parliament launched its strategic plan with a core theme of Taking Parliament to the People and celebrated the International Day for Democracy at Nankumba in Mangochi and earnest efforts have been made to create dialogue with different faces of society.
The strategic plan however was let down with the poor format of the draft communication strategy which looks more like a photocopy of another institution and does not reflect the main strategic plan of Parliament’s agenda of taking parliament to the people.
While the National Assembly is working to bring itself to the people, the political side of parliament continues to reflect partisan interests than the wishes of majority. It has mainly in 2010 taken the power from the people to Powers that be- a sad development for an elected representative body.