[By Ernest Chanda and Chambwa Moonga]
CHOMA Central UPND member of parliament Cornelius Mweetwa has refused to apologise to Vice-President Inonge Wina over remarks in which he is alleged to have attacked her persona during a television programme.
The UPND deputy spokesperson has asked why “a liar” in Vice-President Wina should be let scot-free in Parliament, while he is told to apologise for pointing out her lies.
In February this year, Mweetwa appeared on a Lusaka-based Diamond Television programme dubbed Costa, on which he remarked that it was “shameful and shallow” for Vice-president Wina to insinuate that gassers could be agitating for regime change.
In the same month, lands minister Jean Kapata raised a point of order in Parliament against Mweetwa on the alleged remarks.
But National Assembly Speaker Patrick Matibini only delivered the ruling yesterday.
In his ruling, Dr Matibini said: “In view of the foregoing, I find Mr C Mweetwa, MP, to have been out of order and in breach of parliamentary privilege and in contempt of the House. In view of the foregoing, I’ve decided to admonish him in accordance with Section 28(1)(b) of the National Assembly Powers and Privileges Act CAP 12 of the Laws of Zambia.”
“I’ll now address you Mr C Mweetwa, MP. Mr C Mweetwa, MP, your description of her honour the Vice-President as shallow and shameful amounted to a personal attack on her honour the Vice-President. This is because the words ‘shallow and shameful’ were deposed to describe her honour the Vice-President. And in view of the position she holds as Vice-President of the Republic of Zambia and leader of government business in the House, your description of her in those terms were demeaning and highly disrespectful,” Dr Matibini said. “As a long serving member in this august House, it is most unfortunate that you conducted yourself in a manner you did. And your misconduct has the potential of lowering the integrity and decorum of this House. As an honourable member, your conduct should be above reproach both in and outside the House. The House is in this regard extremely displeased with your conduct. I expect that in future you abide by the rules of the House and avoid such misconduct. A repetition of such misconduct will definitely attract a stiffer penalty. You may proceed to tender your apology.”
When Mweetwa stood, he said: “Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, for inviting me to this House, I was last here in March. And thank you, Mr Speaker, for asking me to come and apologise for the statement I made in reference to a statement made by her honour the Vice-President in what I believe was in furtherance of my enjoyment of my freedom of speech as entrenched in the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of Zambia. Mr Speaker, asking me to apologise is like asking me to stop breathing. I made it abundantly clear to your commit that I….”
Dr Matibini interrupted Mweetwa and ordered him to take a seat.
After being reminded by the Speaker that he was not the first one to be asked to apologise, Mweetwa still refused.
“Mr Speaker, the person who should apologise is the Vice-President for misleading the nation that we the opposition were committing gassing,” he said, as he was again ordered to sit.
“Take a seat. Is it your position that you’ve refused to apologise?” Dr Matibinis asked.
In response, Mweetwa said, “I can’t apologise for enjoying my freedom of speech; not me, Mr Speaker. This is the reason why we continue in this House…No way, no way! Punish me for what I have done wrong, not for no wrong thing.”
“Take your seat. It’s a very simple question that I have posed to you. Either you apologise or you don’t, and then we proceed. We can’t spend the rest of our time on this. Either you accept to apologise or you refuse, it’s as simple. You don’t have to offer an explanation,” Dr Matibini guided.
In response, Mweetwa said, “Mr Speaker, I communicated to management yesterday (Wednesday) that I can’t apologise for no wrong thing.”
“So, you have refused?” asked Dr Matibini.
Mweetwa responsed, “I am not apologising.”
“Take a seat, take a seat. So, for the record, Honourable C Mweetwa, member of parliament for Choma Central, has refused to apologise to Her Honour the Vice-President. We proceed,” said Dr Matibini.
And after Vice-President Wina was called upon to indicate the business of the day, Mweetwa and some other UPND members of parliament walked out of the House.
Later, Dr Matibini told members of parliament that what the House witnessed was not the end of the matter.
And addressing the media at the party secretariat, Mweetwa said he would not allow anybody to begin to “urinate” on him, in terms of violating his rights.
He said the Vice-President, and given the esteem of her office, was not in order to mislead the House, the nation and the world at large, because the issue of gassing was not child’s play.
“It is a matter for which citizens across the country spent sleepless nights and many lives were lost. And to attribute that to the opposition, we needed to respond in the manner befitting,” Mweetwa said.
He explained that his refusal to apologise in Parliament was not “an act of impunity, arrogance, defiance or whatever or trying to demean the House.”
“That is not the idea. I refused to apologise because when Parliament wrote to myself to exculpate myself on allegedly attacking the persona of the Vice-President, I expressly [responded] that I was making reference to the statement that she made and not to her persona,” Mweetwa said. “Therefore, I found it at variance with my principles to apologise for something I believed I was not wrong about. I’m aware that Parliament has rules and regulations that govern the conduct of business and that members who violate certain rules such as to bring the House into ridicule, there is certain punishment.”
He noted that he was ready to be punished for his innocence than to enjoy his freedom by apologising for no wrongdoing.
“That way we’ll be promoting lawlessness; we’ll be creating a monster in the institution of Parliament, that a member of parliament has to apologise even when they haven’t done anything wrong,” Mweetwa said. “I would like the nation to recall that this is the same Vice-President, together with her cohorts in the PF, who told the nation that the opposition were behind the gutting of markets.”
He underscored that he could not surrender his constitutional oath to defend the Constitution.
Mweetwa noted that he swore before Mr Speaker to defend, uphold and promote the Constitution.
He cited Article 88 (2) which says a citizen may comment on a deliberation, statement or decision of the National Assembly.
“I was appearing on Diamond TV as the UPND deputy spokesperson, but most importantly as a citizen and therefore enjoy the right to comment on whatever happens on the floor of the House,” Mweetwa said. “If we continue to agree to do wrong things in order to buy our peace, we’ll be doing a lot of damage to ourselves and the future because we’ll be setting dangerous precedents.”
Mweetwa stressed that he preferred to be punished for defending the Constitution, “than get my freedom by abrogating the Constitution.”
“I’m willing to serve any punishment, for that matter,” he said.
Mweetwa said he would seek legal advice on his position.
“Based on that advice, it shall inform my position on this matter going forward,” he said. “My action were purely driven by the realisation that in terms of Article 88 (2), a citizen has a right to comment on the deliberation or resolution of the National Assembly. Therefore, I found it fit to reject to apologise.”
Mweetwa insisted that Vice-President Wina should apologise because “she is the one who lied to the nation that the opposition were behind gassing.”
He pointed out that misinforming the nation on the floor of the House was not allowed.
“So, how is it that a liar is let to go scot-free and me who is saying these type of lies is shameful and shallow I must apologise? What kangaroo manner of administration is this? How?” Mweetwa wondered. “For now, using my own understanding of the law, I believe that the Vice-President needs to apologise to the nation for lying that the opposition were behind the gassing. She fervently and manifestly knew as a result of her disposition that the opposition had nothing to do with the gassing.”
Mweetwa further indicated that his refusal to apologise in Parliament was a personal action, and not the UPND’s.
“It is me as a citizen and as a representative of the people of Choma Central on the floor of the House. I did not consult the UPND leadership on this [and] I did not even consult the leadership of the UPND in Parliament,” he said.
Mweetwa said “when I feel so much oppressed, I have to react in a manner that depicts the level of frustration.”
“The last space I will allow anybody is to begin to urinate on me, in terms of violating my rights. I’ll not accept that. I’m ready to pay whatever price! I heard what some ministers said when I was leaving [the Chamber]. Some were making comments that ‘no, he should just apologise, otherwise the consequences will be ghastly.’ Ghastly to who?” Mweetwa asked. “Do they think I should have been in the position I am, fighting for the voiceless if I was not willing to pay any price? They are mistaken! I’m not like some people who went to Parliament to as a job, to make money. I have other things I can do in life.”
He said he went to Parliament to fearlessly speak for the people.
“We have so many cowards in Zambia [but] once you try and touch my rights, to amputate the enjoyment of my human rights, you are crossing the red line and it doesn’t matter who is involved; I’ll stand up and say no to this,” explained Mweetwa. “We can’t allow this country to be transformed from being a democratic country into a country of apologies. Someone lies on the floor of the House and I say this is not befitting this high office and I’m asked to apologise! Ask somebody else; no me!”
In February this year, on a special interview programme on Prime TV, government spokesperson Dora Siliya said there was no excuse for politics in the gassing incidents as the matter was driven by criminality, unlike politics.