On February 20 this year—at the height of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) power built on electoral sand, parliamentarian for Blantyre City South East Sameer Suleman and then Deputy Minister of Transport Charles Mchacha, brought their thuggish behaviour right inside the National Assembly in the middle of parliamentary proceedings.
Having probably forgotten that they were not somewhere in Chigumula where they can display their mafia behaviour at will, the duo—with several enablers in the DPP camp—physically attacked Parliament’s sergeant-at-arms whose only crime was to try and enforce a decision by Speaker Catherine Gotani Hara who had ordered Machinga Central East legislator Daud Chikwanje to leave the chamber for misconduct, which the parliamentarian resisted, leading to chaos in the House.
It was in the middle of that anarchy that Suleman and his partner in manhandling, Mchacha, lunged at the sergeant-at-arms to prevent Chikwenga from being booted out.
Now assault is a crime and the duo should have faced the law because parliamentary privilege does not cover “ordinary” crimes.
But nay, Parliament likes to protect its own; hence, light sanctions were massaged on the violent and unruly lawmakers. Mchacha got a four-week suspension from the Assembly to be served during the 2020/2021 Budget Meeting of Parliament.
His buddy Suleman—who even took off his jacket and also threatened to beat journalists covering parliamentary proceedings—got away with being “seriously reprimanded and suspended from the Assembly for a period of 90 days starting from the period of the Committee Meetings which will be held after adjournment of this Meeting up to the next Meeting of Parliament, which will be the 2020/2021 Budget Meeting of Parliament.”
Meanwhile, the humiliated sergeant-at-arms went home without justice after being physically abused while Suleman is right now in the House enjoying his 15 minutes of notoriety while continuing to abuse his privileges.
Just last week, he was at it again, using his protections against civil or criminal action that being a member of the august House accords to one’s spoken words, documents tabled and petitions presented to the House.
There is no doubt that the issue under deliberation on the House floor was crucial as it was tackling something that is at the core of the gap between the rich and the poor in Malawi; it was about race, land ownership and economic opportunity.
A very noble subject I must add.
But it looks to me that Suleman used such sensitive subjects and his privileges as a parliamentarian to launch personal attacks against certain individuals, with his statements having the potential to raise racial tensions in the country.
I mean, what does someone hosting a birthday party for his wife in Dubai have anything to do with the matter at hand?
If the said man invited Indian actors to entertain guests at this party, how does that become the business of the National Assembly or the people of Blantyre City South East for that matter?
Again, even when he was raising the issue about certain communities dominating land ownership in Limbe, he had to throw in stuff without evidence knowing that he cannot be sued by the offended individuals.
For example, he claimed that two people own about 80 percent of Limbe, but never bothered to provide evidence. It is possible that these people have a disproportionate share of the land in the town, but when you bring serious issues with exaggerations, they tend to lose their potency and relevance.
Clearly, Suleman and legislators like him can use their power to unfairly hurt a lot of people, even to settle personal scores if left unchecked.
There must be a way of putting some limits on “speech” without necessarily gagging the free representation of constituents’ views.
Parliament can start the ball rolling by introducing the public’s right to reply. I suggest that those who feel injured by the statements of legislators should be allowed to write the Speaker and directly respond to accusations against them.
The Speaker, or whoever he or she chooses as long as the person is not a “stranger” in the House, can then read that response in the Chamber and let it be fully captured live on radio and television just as parliamentary deliberations that enabled offending statements are.
And the content in the response from the offended member of the general public should have the same protections and privileges as enjoyed by the legislator who opens his or her mouth recklessly. It’s only fair.