President Lazarus Chakwera yesterday faced Parliament to answer questions from people’s representatives and outwitted his political rivals with both charm and substance.
Becoming only the second President since the adoption of the 1995 Constitution which provides for the appearance of the Head of State in Parliament to answer questions, Chakwera—who between 2014 and 2019 served as Lilongwe North East legislator and Leader of Opposition in Parliament—appeared at home and answered the questions with ease.
His appearance, the second for a President after Bakili Muluzi during his first five-year term of office between 1994 and 1999, fulfilled a pledge he made on the campaign trail and during his inauguration that he would respect the rule of law.
It was not all rosy though for the President as opposition backbenchers jeered and heckled, an obvious fear among three of his predecessors–Bingu wa Mutharika, Joyce Banda and Peter Mutharika. He was asked some flattering but mostly discomforting questions.
The questions tackled the contentious risk allowances for public school teachers as schools partially reopen after closing in March as a preventive measure for Covid-19 , planned construction of official residences for MPs, plans to open a diplomatic mission in Jerusalem, Israel, gender, agriculture and environment.
On MPs official residences, Chakwera said the move was aimed at saving public funds and revealed that the State would spend K2.7 billion in housing allowances of the 193 legislators during their five-year tenure.
Said the President: “The people of Malawi will pay over K2.7 billion in housing allowances to the members of this House during this term of office, yet not a single member has stood up to say that they would like to forfeit this allowance to go towards their constituents.
“From this double standard, I discern that the objections to the provision of an official house for MPs are not motivated by a desire to save money, but a desire to keep Malawians paying MPs’ housing allowances indefinitely.
“My proposal would cost the Malawian taxpayer nothing and save the taxpayer billions in the long term, so I am amazed that there are members here who believe it would be better to keep costing the taxpayer billions and saving the taxpayer nothing.”
He also rejected claims that the proposal of building houses for MPs will prevent government from building houses for teachers, nurses, soldiers, and civil servants.
On why he had failed to address the issues of climate change in his maiden State of the Nation Address, Chakwera said he will soon deliver a comprehensive address on the matter following consultations with experts, including the eminent Professor Sosten Chiotha; hence, avoided pre-empting the issues in the Sona.
He also skipped questions on economic projects, saying some of the requested information would be delivered when the Minister of Finance delivers the Tonse Alliance’s maiden national budget statement this morning.
Earlier, some of the opposition members demanded—albeit without decorum if not loudly—within minutes of his address that he to remove his mask, voicing their discontent with the quality of his voice over his speech.
The President ignored the calls, but obliged when Speaker of Parliament Catherine Gotani Hara voiced the same concerns. Chakwera said “it’s an honour [pronounced itsanana]” to take off the mask and applauded the opposition for freeing him.
The President gave a comprehensive response to the questions and queries raised by the Leader of Opposition in Parliament Kondwani Nankhumwa in his response to the Sona.
So detailed was the response to Nankhumwa that he was moved to joke that the President had turned his response into the actual Sona by mentioning his title 20 times in the response.
When given an opportunity to ask supplementary question, Nankhumwa light-heartedly told the President to calm down then asked him why veteran politicians who campaigned for the Tonse Alliance were left out of Cabinet. He also wondered why the President was championing the Chakwera Hi-Five agenda and not that of the rest of the partners.
The President said Tonse Alliance partners shared similar principles and that not all those who campaigned for change in the country did so to get positions.
Chakwera also took on Mzimba North legislator Yeremiah Chihana who, in his response to the Sona as leader of Alliance for Democracy in Parliament, alleged that some Cabinet ministers were receiving money from some Malawian businesspersons of Asian descent purportedly to evade arrests.
The President dared Chihana to ride with him on the convoy to show him the evidence.
Chihana did not respond in the House, but later said in an interview that the President had quoted him out of context.
He said he had submitted evidence of corruption in the new administration to the office of the Speaker.
Said Chihana: “I do not report to the President as a member of Parliament but what I would ask, not challenge the President but ask, is for him to go ahead and act on the information which I have provided.”
Vice-President Saulos Chilima was also in attendance and watched his boss take questions from the legislators.