Today a dramatic scene unfolded in the Zambian National Assembly as a legislative block led by the ruling Patriotic Front party tabled and passed a motion to remove immunity of the fourth Republican President Rupiah Banda.
The introduction of the motion prompted a chaotic and bitter dispute, eventually leading to a walkout of most opposition members of parliament, however the ruling party continued with the reading, debate and vote.
The votes in favor of removal just exceeded 50% of the total seats. Out of a total of 158 seats, there were 80 votes in favor of removing immunity, 2 against, and 3 abstentions. None of the other votes were registered due to the walkout.
The motion, introduced by the PF Minister of Justice Wynter Kabimba, became deadlocked for the period of an hour after an opposition MP from the United Party for National Development (UPND) Jack Mwiimbu entered a point of order arguing that the house must first await the outcome of a case currently sitting before the High Court filed by the former president, which requested an injunction until he was given an opportunity to defend himself.
“Mr. Speaker, we are all aware that at various foras and in this house, you have advised that a matter that is in court cannot be discussed on the floor of this house,” Mr Mwiimbu said. ”Your office, Mr. Speaker, has always said once the matter is in court, your hands are tied. And that there is nothing you can do until the matter is resolved in the courts of law.”
However the Speaker, Patrick Matibini ruled against Mwiimbu’s point of order, and following an hour long recess during which he met with opposition whips and advisers, he then proceeded to rule against every point of order and objection raised by the opposition, eventually leading to the walkout of MPs.
The environment outside was highly tense, as the National Assembly building was surrounded with armed police seeking to any protests from approaching the legislature.
Rupiah Banda, who served as president from 2008-2011, has been a much celebrated international figure after stepping down in the last elections to hand over power to President Michael Sata. Most recently, he served as an election monitor to Kenya as part of the Carter Center mission. However, his critics in the ruling party have alleged corruption under his administration.
In the parliamentary session, which was broadcast live on Zambian TV and radio, Kabimba proceeded to lay out a series of accusations against former President Banda, including alleged abuse of office, illegal acquisition of property, oil procurement contracts, and campaign finance. Among other accusations, Kabimba listed items such as “branded light bulbs” and “branded lollipops” that were given out by the Movement for Multiparty Democracy during past campaigns.
But critics seem to dismiss the claims in the government’s motion as lacking any details or any substantive evidence. One observer on Twitter commented that the PF was unable to name a single account number or demonstrate from where the cited funds were allegedly stolen.
Following Kabimba’s presentation of the government’s allegations, a number of PF officials spoke to the floor, including Gabriel Namulambe, who formerly served as the MMD’s elections chief, and Given Lubinda, the formerly disgraced Foreign Minister for the PF, who described today’s proceedings as “a historic day.”
Before the immunity motion was tabled, lawyers acting on behalf of Banda denounced the attack as a political revenge ploy. Sakwiba Sikota described the rushed push to remove immunity in a single afternoon “a mockery of justice.” Banda’s international lawyer Robert Amsterdam said it was improper for the PF to seek to lift immunity before they had laid a case: “One cannot simply begin with the verdict and go backwards toward the case, evidence, and accusation, you have to do it the other way around.”
While most opposition MPs had walked out in protest, a few stayed on the floor, in addition to the defecting members of the opposition who had taken positions as deputy ministers in the government (and whose seats represented the crucial swing votes to win the motion).
Request Mutanga, an UPND MP from Kalomo, raised his opposition to the motion shortly before the vote.
“I feel bitter because this motion has not been done in good faith. I think the opposition was not given enough time to prepare and defend this motion,” Mutanga said. “The people investigating will spend more money than the money alleged to have been stolen. We have seen that members of this government when called for investigations at Anti Corruption Commision, They have refused. And the President has said if you want to investigate my ministers get clearance from me. Without clearance they will not be investigating. All of you will be taken to court. Not all of you are clean.”