This other day last month, one Kondwani Nankhumwa—the Leader of Opposition in Malawi’s Parliament—thought it would be a good idea to have a shadow Cabinet to help, apparently, him become an effective Head of State and Government in-waiting. Nankhumwa’s idea of an alternative Cabinet was largely dominated by Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) senior members.
The list included former Cabinet ministers Joseph Mwanamvekha and Bright Msaka who, both like Nankhumwa, hope to be the immediate-past former ruling party’s presidential candidate in the 2025 presidential elections.
Nankhumwa, himself a former Cabinet minister in the Peter Mutharika administration and who also harbours presidential ambitions on the DPP ticket, included in his so-called shadow Cabinet members of other parties such as United Democratic Front and Alliance for Democracy.
A few, including Msaka and Mwanamvekha, declined the shadow positions, saying the Leader of Opposition’s move was never authorised by the DPP president Mutharika. Nankhumwa didn’t care and proceeded to re-arrange the sitting plan in the august House to reflect his stump of authority that also consolidates his grip on power in the National Assembly and, he hopes, in the party where he has become a divisive figure in pushing for Mutharika’s ouster and calling for early transition of leadership.
But this week, DPP spokesperson Shadric Namalomba would have none of it and secured an injunction from the High Court of Malawi in Zomba, staying Nankhumwa’s manouvers in the House, pending judicial review.
On Thursday, there was a little bit of confusion in the National Assembly within the DPP conference over the new sitting arrangements that are part of the court order.
So far, everything that has happened in DPP—from the fights over how the Leader of Opposition emerged, to the issue of party leadership and its restructuring project, shows that the DPP is highly divided, confused about its identity and its role outside the Executive that it was used to for six years.
So far, Mutharika has shown to be a weak and ineffective leader who has failed to bring order to the party and help it rebuild into a cohesive and strong opposition that is competitive and can offer a strong challenge to Malawi Congress Party’s President Lazarus Chakwera and his Tonse Alliance if it survives to the next election. Nankhumwa has taken advantage of the weak leadership to bludgeon his authority onto the party. But the shadow Cabinet move was bone-headed and ill-advised.
You see, the Malawi Parliament is not the United Kingdom’s House of Commons. Sure, like in Malawi, the Leader of the Opposition is a Member of Parliament who leads the largest party that is not in government.
However, unlike in the UK where the Leader of the Opposition may become Prime Minister if his or her party or coalition wins the support of the majority of members in the House of Representatives that is not the case here because being Leader of Opposition in Parliament does not make Nankhumwa the head of his party.
He will have to be elected by the party’s Electoral College at a DPP convention, which is yet to take place. As things stand now, it is Mutharika who is head of the party and fully in control of executive decisions of the DPP.
In other words, Nankhumwa, as leader of the House, can sit at the central table in front of the opposition benches, chair meetings in which the opposition discusses policies and examines bills and then presenting alternative thoughts on those frameworks in line with party policy positions.
But I doubt he can appoint a shadow Cabinet unless tasked by Mutharika or if the appointments have come from the DPP leader down to the Leader of Opposition. Clearly, Nankhumwa acted unilaterally here, a move that cannot be justified given how polarizing the decision has proved not just in the party but the House as well in the middle of budget proceedings no less.
And the loser is the Malawian because instead of giving alternative policy ideas on the ongoing budget debate in the House or on bills; directing questions to the government; criticizing government policy that the DPP disagrees with, the party is squabbling over which seats their buttocks should rest on.
Just since when did buttocks become more important than the national budget, bills and other legislative business?
The DPP should settle their internal little buttocks squabbles within their increasingly little party and allow the people’s House to work for the people—not for the parliamentarians’ buttocks.