The powerful inter-party Business Committee of the National Assembly has declared that parliamentarians will not face arbitrary arrests of the type that spread fear of insecurity among them, after two opposition members were arrested under controversial circumstances earlier in the week.
There was hand-clapping among most of the members after National Assembly Speaker Richard Msowoya announced the development in a ‘communications from the chair’ session in the House yesterday afternoon in Lilongwe.
The announcement came hot on the heels of arrests of main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) parliamentarians Jessie Kabwila (Salima North-West) on Monday and Peter Chakhwantha (Lilongwe South-West) on Tuesday over an apparent social media chat purporting to unseat the government because of governance failures.
MCP’s executive member Ulemu Msungama had been nabbed earlier, on Sunday, by the police over the same issue and all three have been questioned. Earlier reports said the three were charged with either sedition or treason, although the police seem to have changed the tune –saying the suspects will be charged later.
Opposition members roundly branded the arrests as the ruling Democratic Progressive Party-led government’s ploy to harass the opposition. And Lilongwe North-East parliamentarian Maxwell Thyolera on Tuesday even moved a motion to suspend proceedings of the newly-opened session until the House discussed the members’ immunity from arrests when the House is in session.
In yesterday’s half-day session, the Speaker announced that the Business Committee had met earlier in the day and the top party and parliamentary leadership in it resolved amicably that Constitutional order and harmony should prevail in and outside the House through the declaration.
“From now onwards, the Speaker’s office will expect the authorities not to arrest Members of Parliament whilst Parliament is meeting, unless the arrest procedures, as provided for in the National Assembly Powers and Privileges Act (NAPPA) and Section 60 of the Constitution are adhered to,” he said.
Msowoya also said his office should be informed on arrests of members, in line with Section 4 of the NAPPA), adding that members are requested to notify the Speaker in writing on violations in these matters.
“My office will write a letter to the Ministry of Home Affairs and Internal Security advising that the mounting of roadblocks and arrest of Members of Parliament while Parliament is meeting should not be repeated, unless the relevant laws are complied with,” he added.
The government side confirmed the mutual agreement through Leader of the House and Transport and Public Works Minister Francis Kasaila, who said after the discussions, it was clear that the issue of privileges, or immunity, among members in not only the present scenario but also in past regimes.
“It is a commitment of government that we will make sure that the provisions of that act, in as far as the procedure (is concerned), are followed as to the law.
“That is important for us and is important for the future of our country. And as government, I am giving that commitment, that is the commitment from the President as well, that the provisions of the act will be followed,” said Kasaila, to a loud applause from mainly opposition benches.
MCP president Lazarous Chakwera and People’s Party (PP) parliamentarian Ralph Mhone confirmed that the Business Committee had thrashed the issues that had rocked unity in the House and beyond.
The tension that had been palpable between the government and opposition members evaporated and the politicians enjoyed long sessions of humour as they debated reports presented in the House by various delegations, including those that represented Malawi at key international forums.