Failure by Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development George Chaponda to attend the first day of the 2016/17 Mid-Year Budget Review yesterday stirred debate in the National Assembly.
Opposition members of Parliament (MPs) demanded to know the whereabouts of the minister who is also Mulanje South West MP (Democratic Progressive Party-DPP). He is the current leader of the House.
And as Parliament reconvened at 2pm yesterday, his chair remained vacant, prompting opposition legislators to demand a statement from the Speaker Richard Msowoya on the whereabouts of the minister.
Acting People’s Party (PP) president Uladi Mussa asked Msowoya to make a pronouncement in the House on the whereabouts of the leader of the House.
“This is a House of records. We want to know where the Leader of the House is and in his absence, who is our Leader of the House?” asked Mussa.
Kasungu Central MP Amon Nkhata (Malawi Congress Party-MCP) asked the Speaker to allow the joint committee of Parliament probing the maize deal to give a report from their inquiry.
Msowoya said he had no knowledge about Chaponda’s whereabouts and status; hence, he could not say anything on the matter.
“I have not received communication from either government or the High Court in Mzuzu regarding the status of the Leader of the House. So, I cannot make pronouncements when I have no information on the matter,” he said.
The Speaker unsuccessfully tried to curtail debate on the matter before Salima North West legislator Jessie Kabwila (MCP) rose to remind Msowoya that there was no point skirting around on Chaponda’s status when the High Court in Mzuzu had already given its stand on the matter through an order granted to civil society organisations.
Kabwila, therefore, asked the Speaker to simply regard the minister as former leader of the House in light of a court order against him performing his duties.
But Msowoya told the House that none of the affected parties had formally communicated to his office what had happened, hence, he could not speculate.
“As a person, I might have known what happened. But as Speaker, I cannot act on newspaper or zikachitika mumvera kwa ife to bring it to the House,” he emphasised.
Msowoya also emphasised that he would be recognising deputy leader of the House Kondwani Nankhumwa [as leader of the House] in the absence of Chaponda.
Earlier, as the debate raged on through point of orders, Blantyre North MP Francis Phiso (Democratic Pregressive Party –DPP) wondered whether Kabwila, whom he described as being on bail (over an alleged treason case concerning social media chatting recently), had any moral right to query Chaponda and the legal issues surrounding him.
Responding to Phiso’s remarks, Kabwila retorted that many people are on bail, even over old court cases.
She caused uproar when she said other people on bail included President Peter Mutharika, Nankhumwa and Minister of Civic Education, Culture and Community Development Patricia Kaliati. She was referring to six people who were then in opposition and were charged with treason for having tried to breach the Constitution by allegedly conspiring to sideline the then vice-president Joyce Banda from ascending to the presidency after the then president Bingu wa Mutharika died suddenly in April 2012. The case fell out of court after the incumbent leader won the presidency two years later
But commenting on the Speaker’s ruling that he would recognise Nankhumwa as the acting Leader of the House in the absence of Chaponda, Kasungu West legislator Alex Major (MCP) reminded the Speaker that the Standing Orders do not recognise the existence of the ‘deputy leader of the House’ position.
In a telephone interview, Chaponda said he spent the whole of yesterday attending a funeral of a relative thus he could not make it to Parliament.
“In fact, I am on the road coming from the funeral,” he said before hanging up.
Chaponda is alleged to have played a role in the maize deal that has gone sour between Admarc and two Zambian companies —Kaloswe Commuters and Courier Limited and Zambia Cooperative Federation (ZCF).