House split over Leader of Opposition

House split over Leader of Opposition

What started three years ago as an internal party squabble over Leader of Opposition (LoP) on Monday derailed the people’s agenda, freezing debate on the State of the Nation Address (Sona) that President Lazarus Chakwera launched with his major speech on Friday.

Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) legislators dismissed Speaker Catherine Gotani Hara’s plea to respect a 2022 court order that maintained Mulanje Central parliamentarian Kondwani Nankhumwa as LoP until the injunction is vacated.

But the adamant DPP side demanded that the Budget Meeting be suspended until the court settles the matter because, they argued, a man who was expelled from their party last month cannot lead the opposition.

Following Nankhumwa’s expulsion, DPP late last month re-introduced as LoP Mulanje South West Member of Parliament (MP) George Chaponda whose earlier appointment in 2022 forced 22 MPs to get the said injunction against him assuming the role.

On Monday, the Speaker maintained that even after withdrawing Chaponda’s name and replacing him with Thyolo Thava lawmaker Mary Navicha last week, the court order still protects Nankhumwa.

Chaos started when Hara requested the embattled Nankhumwa to respond to the Sona as per parliamentary procedure.

Some of the legislators during the chaos

The Speaker said Navicha—who is technically just leader of DPP in the House at the moment—would speak after Nankhumwa.

But as Nankhumwa moved to the podium to speak, all hell broke loose. Some DPP MPs led by Navicha mounted a protest against the Speaker’s decision.

There was a loud and bitter exchange of words between the Speaker and Navicha who had the backing of senior party leaders such as Mangochi South West MP Shadreck Namalomba, Chaponda and Blantyre City South East legislator Sameer Sulemani.

“You cannot take us for granted Madam Speaker. We must speak first before anyone,” shouted Navicha.

Recognised Nankhumwa as LoP: Gotani Hara

The Speaker fired back: “Don’t argue with me, go and argue with the court”.

The Speaker had to invoke Standing Order 105 against three MPs to, initially, send them out for the remainder of the day because of their disorderly conduct.

But the three MPs—Navicha, Suleman and legislator for Zomba Malosa Grace Kwelepeta—refused to leave the chamber.

The Speaker ordered the Sergeant-at-Arms to force them out, but the MPs did not budge and continued to chant and protest.

Leader of the House Richard Chimwendo Banda pleaded with the MPs to obey marching orders, but they stayed put.

After they refused to leave the House immediately, Gotani Hara suspended them for two sitting days.

She also abruptly adjourned the House to today 09:30am.

This was the second time on Monday the House had experienced chaos.

At the start of business at 2pm, the House was suspended for about 90 minutes after the Speaker recognised Nankhumwa as LoP.

It all started immediately after Gotani Hara asked for confirmation from the Business Committee if her communication reflected the resolution and agreement of the agenda setting body.

Chimwendo Banda responded affirmatively.  But when the same question was extended to the LoP, both Navicha and Nankhumwa stood at the same time from the front bench of the opposition and switched on their microphones ready to respond.

Navicha was seating were Nankhumwa previously sat as LoP on DPP benches while Nankhumwa was also in the front benches that usually accommodate UDF leadership.

“I recognise Honourable Nankhumwa because my hands are tied due to the court order,” said the Speaker while asking Navicha to resume her seat.

Gotani Hara said it was resolved that apart from Nankhumwa, the Chief Whip from the DPP, who was part of the Business Committee, would be allowed to give confirmation of the resolution and agreement.

The Speaker also ruled that Nankhumwa would respond to the President’s Sona as LoP and Navicha would also respond to the same statement immediately after Nankhumwa on behalf of the DPP.

Dissatisfied with this decision, Namalomba asked the Speaker to suspend proceedings until the court resolves the leadership wrangle in the opposition, but Gotani Hara rejected the proposal.

Said the Speaker:  “We cannot hold the whole nation at ransom because of this issue. It is a budget for the nation”.

In an interview, Chimwendo Banda said it was painful that business could not proceed on account of DPP’s infighting. He said this was a waste of time and money.

He said: “I engaged the leadership from DPP and I thought this was resolved only to see this.”

Navicha refused to grant us an interview, saying this was on advice from her lawyers as her issue is in court.

But Chaponda said the best is for the House to wait for the outcome of the court.

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