The popular narrative currently circulating on the social and even mainstream media is that President Lazarus Chakwera ‘roasted’ Leader of Opposition Kondwani Nankhumwa during question time in Parliament on Thursday, September 11, 2020.
The reason propagators of this narrative are forwarding is that despite the fact that President Chakwera took time to respond to Nankhumwa’s ‘response’ of his SONA, the Leader of Opposition took an easy approach and chose not to ask some ‘tough’ questions as people expected.
But wait a minute. President Chakwera was fulfilling a constitutional obligation to appear in Parliament to ‘respond’ to questions from MPs on obviously pertinent issues affecting our country. Instead, the President chose to spend almost over half of his allotted time responding to the response of Leader of Opposition to his SONA sentence by sentence. Why?
There should have been a reason why President Chakwera decided to use his first time in Parliament as President of this country almost wholly responding to Nankhumwa. The immediate answer is that he found the response by Leader of Opposition to his SONA as capable of denting his image and even curtailing his honeymoon as a President. It meant there was enough substance in Nankhumwa’s response worth responding to. He would have chosen the option of ignoring Nankhumwa if his response was of no consequence. He did not because that was simply not an option.
A SONA is not just a regular statement; it is a powerful tradition across many democratic countries in the world where Presidents are given an opportunity to articulate their vision for development. President Chakwera’s vision, therefore, could not have been ably articulated without drawing from politics; it was a political statement. In his response, Leader of Opposition Nankhumwa drew President Chakwera to the fact that his SONA skirted around main Tonse Alliance campaign promises such as free water and electricity connection; three meals a day; 1 million jobs in the first 12 months; tax free week, cheap fertilizer for all, cheap and non-renewable driving licences and passports, among others whilst at the same time focusing on an obscure Hi-5 agenda. This was a very legitimate observation from the Leader of Opposition Nankhumwa.
President Chakwera’s response to Nankhumwa’s ‘response’ did little to help matters. Instead of dissuading the narrative that his SONA avoided the main campaign promises for Tonse Alliance, Chakwera focused on attacking Nankhumwa on mundane things such as sentence construction and facts on why Kamuzu is not the ‘Father and Founder of MCP’, which, to say the least, is a useless undertaking considering that he should have optimized his time in the Chamber. This approach also only fueled accusations that President Chakwera and his team are only interested in flowery English language with very little on substance. Meanwhile, the narrative that he avoided main Tonse Alliance campaign promises still stands.
Just a recap, the Tonse Alliance comprises nine political parties with MCP and UTM being the main ones. The Malawi Congress Party has a Hi-5 agenda whilst UTM promoted concepts like three meals a day; 1 million jobs in the first 12 months; free electricity and water connection, among others. The alliance promoted some kind of amalgamation of these campaign themes, and for Chakwera to present a SONA with only an MCP agenda with truncated UTM promises, eyebrows had to be raised. Some can argue that it was no business for Nankhumwa to point this out but who is better-placed to do that at this very early stage?
Perhaps Nankhumwa could have done better in the phrasing of his question. He should have asked Chakwera whether it is still relevant to call his government an MCP government or a Tonse Alliance government. This may look like a small question now but it is only just a matter of time before Malawians will be forced to revert to it.
Whereas President Chakwera came to Parliament with guns blazing and fully prepared to ‘demolish’ the Leader of House, Nankhumwa deflated a visibly angry President with a master stroke. He advised the President to “take it easy”.
All in all, the Leader of Opposition Nankhumwa showed leadership maturity; his strength is in his calm and collective approach to issues. President Chakwera displayed the same anger and restlessness he used to display when he was Leader of Opposition a few months ago. He must improve.