CATHERINE GOTANI HARA is the new Speaker of the National Assembly. She has become the first woman to head the Legislature in Malawi. Gotani Hara, who is Malawi Congress Party (MCP) Mzimba North East parliamentarian, is now leading a house which is politically divided due to the disputed presidential election results. She speaks to our News Analyst SUZGO CHITETE. Excerpts:
Congratulations on your election? By the way, how does it feel to be the first female Speaker in the history of Malawi?
I thank God for this great opportunity. I am humbled and privileged to be on this position out of many capable men and women. I wish to express my gratitude to MCP President Lazarus Chakwera and the whole party for having confidence in me. The party campaigned for me, as you know we are only 55 on that side but the support came from the whole House. More and above, I thank people of Mzimba North East for choosing me as their leader. It is because of their vote that today I say I am the first woman speaker in Malawi.
You are not new to Parliament and politics; you have been in the august House as a member of Parliament and a cabinet minister, how does this experience help you?
You see as a member of Parliament at one point, it helped me observe the conduct of deliberations in the National Assembly. I was able to see how previous speakers conducted business. As a minister I used to answer questions in the House from members so this experience will help me although I am now on the receiving end as Speaker. I am banking hope on my familiarity of procedures and practice of the House.
Beyond the political experience, you have academic qualification and worked with international organisations such as DfID, how do you intend to use such exposure in your new role?
My job with DfID is quiet critical. I learnt very important negotiation skills, because it involved negotiating with governments; Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Malawi in terms of support. I worked with a lot of ministries here such as health, agriculture and education. So, I needed to negotiate with or on behalf of government to get support from our organisation and other donors. The same skills could be used to negotiate for funding from government to the National Assembly. As an institution, we also need partnerships, be it for training or funding from other organisations to improve on our operations. It is in this area that my experience becomes key.
Quite interesting. Now, you are becoming speaker at a time when there is political tension due to the contested presidential election results. Right from the first day during President Peter Mutharika’s presentation of the State of the Nation Address [Sona], tempers were high that opposition MCP had to walk out. How do you ensure that there is progress in spite of this battle?
That is true, but we do have rules; the Constitution, laws and standing orders. I will use these as my guiding principles, because if the chamber becomes hot, the same heat will be translated outside because people are watching us. So that’s one area where I need to tread carefully, because in all this I need to execute my duties in a fair and professional manner.
I was here on Friday when MPs from your party booed President Peter Mutharika, and walked out of the House. You tried to call for order but it was in vain. How did it feel to you to have the State President verbally harassed in front of you? Did you feel disrespected especially that these are members from your party?
I can’t say disrespected as such because I don’t think they were doing it to me as an individual, it was about expressing their feelings. And it is within our Constitution for people to express their feelings and it is not a criminal offence but obviously while expressing your feelings you can step on other people’s feelings.
After the Friday chaos, have you tried to engage your party members or those from the government side on the matter?
We had our first business meeting (on Wednesday) which is a leadership meeting for the House. We have discussed the need to have decorum in the house and so far so good. Starting from Monday deliberations have gone on well in the House.
You are an MP belonging to a political party. how do you ensure that you are impartial in your judgment?
Like I said, the rules of the House will be my guiding tools. But it is my commitment to be a Speaker for all. This is a position of trust and I shall ensure I conduct myself according to set rules.
Section 65 on crossing the floor remains one contentious issue in the House – if presented with evidence would you invoke it?
Definitely, I will apply it. I have said we need to respect the law. But the challenge sometimes is that people rush to the courts and the Speaker is gagged.