Of presidential prerogative and vetting

Hon Folks, since 1994 a sitting President doesn’t justify Cabinet reshuffles. Hiring and firing of ministers is a presidential prerogative, they say.

When the phrase was first used by the government of Bakili Muluzi, I thought it was a mere excuse by a political mentee of Kamuzu to flex muscle over his ministers. There were times when they could be derided as madeya (chaff).

Little did I know that those to come after him wouldn’t do things differently! Which president hasn’t enjoyed exercising unhinged powers when hiring or firing ministers?

The only Cabinet position insulated from presidential prerogative is that of the (First) Vice-President who constitutionally goes into government together with the President by the will of the electorate through “direct, universal and equal suffrage.”

That’s why the omission of Vice-President Saulos Chilima on the Cabinet list released following the October 7 reshuffle is said to be of no consequence.  Except when delegated a ministerial portfolio,   Vice-President goes into the Cabinet through the ballot, not appointment. Removal from Cabinet is by impeachment, not dismissal.

Even where the Vice President leaves the governing party and joins another party as is the case now, it is the Vice President alone who is mandated “fill a vacancy in the office of President.”

This is what happened when Bingu wa Mutharika died of cardiac arrest while serving as State President on April 5 2012. Estranged Vice President Joyce Banda, who had been booted out of DPP on allegation that she had formed “parallel structures”, became President and her People’s Party (PP), became the governing party by default.

It’s an experience that should’ve served as a lesson to ensure the presidency is “ring-fenced” from party shenanigans. Surprisingly, hardly six years later, a simmering rift in the presidency has brought back the octopus-factor in government where APM is supported by DPP and Chilima is supported by UTM, two literally warring parties.

Back to the Cabinet: why in the name of democracy, is entry to this body of top leaders of the Executive arm of government at the sole discretion of one person, the President? Is this hang-over element of autocracy good for good governance built on the pillars of transparency and accountability?

I never lived a moment to doubt that the President allocates Cabinet positions to people who are suitable for the job.  APM must’ve considered the technical competence of Samuel Tembenu and Goodal Gondwe when appointing them Minister of Justice and Minister of Finance respectively.

But suitability is also about conduct and character. Which is why, there’s a backlash against the appointment of DPP Regional Governor for the South Charles Mchacha into the Cabinet.

The Women Lawyers Association is demanding that APM should rescind Mchacha’s appointment, accusing him of demeaning women participating in public affairs and holding different political views.

But suitability is also about balance. Various civil society organisations have reacted angrily to the appointment of only three women in a Cabinet of 20 ministers.

The Women Lawyers Association has demanded justification of APM’s action which they see as a retrogressive step in the fight for women empowerment.

NGO Gender Coordination Network, an umbrella body for 54 NGOs promoting gender equality and women empowerment, accuses the global champion of He-For-She campaign of flouting s.11 of the Gender Equality Act which requires of any Public Sector appointing or recruiting authority to ensure there’s “no less than 40 percent and no more than 60 percent of either sex in any department in the Public Sector.”

APM is also accused of appointing a Cabinet contrary to the various international instruments on women’s rights and gender equality such as the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination, the African Protocol on Women’s Rights and the Sadc Protocol on Gender and Development.

Was APM prepared for the bashing by citizens now when we are only months away to the 2019 elections? May be, but it could also be that as human, he may have overlooked other variables when looking at the suitability of his new appointees to the Cabinet. Which is why, objective vetting of appointments by presidential prerogative may be as good for the president as they are for democracy.

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