Malawi: It’s the same old story of impunity

Kachali being sworn in as Vice President in April
Malawi’s Vice President Khumbo Kachali and Chief Secretary to Government Bright Msaka exerted pressure on the Parliamentary Service Commission (PSC) to remove Clerk of Parliament (CoP) Matilda Katopola from office, a move that may cost taxpayers over half a billion kwacha.

I have been privy to the Commission’s minutes, correspondence, authenticated documents and has also conducted in-depth interviews that expose the behind the scenes political maneuvering tailored at ridding Parliament of the controversial Clerk

The minutes of the Commission held on May 21 2012 in the Speaker’s boardroom, Chimunthu Banda, who chairs the Commission, is recorded as having told commissioners that he had a meeting with the Vice President and the Chief Secretary who, he said, “indicated that government feels that she [Katopola] may not serve the current administration better and, therefore, she should be relieved of her duties…”

Chimunthu Banda is also recorded as having advised Kachali and Msaka that hiring and firing of the CoP rests with the Commission following approval by the President.

The Plot:
The machinations to remove Katopola, who was arrested last week on a 2008 case dismissed by the Commission and discredited by the late president Bingu wa Mutharika, started as early as May 5 2012, exactly a month after the departed leader’s death.

In a detailed explanation of her quagmire provided  on request, the CoP narrates that on May 5 2012, she got a text message from Msaka, instructing her to see him in the morning of Monday May 7.

During the 9am meeting on Monday, Msaka told her that her position at Parliament was so untenable that even if she insisted on staying, she would face “a lot of hostilities” and advised her to consider accepting redeployment.

“You can be appointed DPP [Director of Public Prosecutions], Law Commissioner etc or you may want to go to a Malawi mission, but the situation is not conducive for your remaining at Parliament,” she quoted the Chief Secretary as saying.

In response, Katopola said she told Msaka that whoever has powers to remove her should issue her with an appropriate letter on condition that she will get her benefits up to retirement age.

“He [Msaka] insisted that I think about this since decisions have to be made at the earliest time. He told me to see him again the following Monday on May 14 for my final view,” said Katopola.

But, she added, realising that the appointed date was a public holiday, she called Msaka and asked for a new date. Msaka, according to the CoP, never reverted to her regarding the follow-up appointment.

In a follow-up interview on Wednesday this week, Katopola said she simply wants to get her dues. She said returning to Parliament or getting redeployed is unacceptable to her because the current administration has already made up its mind that she cannot serve it well.

Pressure mounts on Speaker:
In her written account of events, Katopola said on May 19 2012, the day after the opening of the Budget Meeting of Parliament, Speaker of Parliament Henry Chimunthu Banda called her around 10am and asked her to meet him at the office for an urgent matter.

“He [Chimunthu Banda] told me that he was summoned early in the morning by the Vice President and the Chief Secretary, directing him to ensure that I am removed from office as soon as possible. I told the Speaker that I had no problem as long as I got all my dues,” she explained.

After discussions during the ordinary meeting of the PSC, all the six commissioners present (Chimunthu Banda, Professor Eta Banda, Ackim Mwanza, Makala Ngozo, Alfred Mwechimu and R.H.E Mapemba) observed that government had made a decision and they needed to respect it “even though no reason has been given.”

The PSC, therefore, resolved that: 
• The CoP should be relieved of her duties immediately and a recommendation should be sent to the President by the Chairperson.
• The CoP should go on leave while waiting for the direction of the President.

The same day (May 21), The Nation understands that Chimunthu Banda deployed a confidential memo to the President recommending that Katopola be relieved of her duties.

The Speaker also reported to the President that the Commission would send Katopola on leave pending the Head of State’s final position on the matter.

He also recommended to the President that upon termination of her services, Katopola should get all her benefits up to retirement age. 

Based on my calculations based on her current salary of K736 752, Katopola may walk away with at least K500 million in compensations as she retires in 2030.

This is because Katopola was not on a periodic contract. She is a permanent and pensionable officer in the Parliamentary Service.

Should the Banda administration proceed to remove her from office in the absence of reasonable grounds and due process such as giving her the opportunity to be heard, she would have to be paid her salary and other benefits up to the retirement age of 60, which in her case is 2030.

The word ‘remove’ in the Act, according to associate law Professor Edge Kanyongolo, means that the person can no longer work in that office.

Under section 17 of the Parliamentary Service Act (PSA), the Clerk may only be removed from office on grounds of disability, bankruptcy, neglect of duty or misconduct provided that the CoP has the right to be heard.

 We have also established that the Speaker’s memorandum to the President recommending dismissal did not provide reasons for the PSC’s decision. The Commission also neglected to give the CoP the opportunity to be heard, according to documents I  have seen.

When asked about the reasons for wanting to remove Katopola as recorded by the PSC, Msaka declined to comment. “Let us talk about this some other time,” was all he could say.

We were unable to get hold of Vice President Kachali to answer the same question posed to the Chief Secretary.

Count the costs, please:
Also on May 21, Chimunthu Banda received a memorandum from Parliament’s financial controller, C.J Kachinjika advising the Speaker on computation of terminal benefits for the CoP. 

Apparently, this was in response to the Speaker’s e-mailed instruction that Kachinjika should engage the Secretary for Public Service Management and the Solicitor General to get technical advice on

Katopola’s Benefits:
The memo from the financial controller, whose reference number is CoP/2/2, indicates that both the Secretary for Public Service Management Sam Madula and Solicitor General Anthony Kamanga noted the difficulties of providing guidance without understanding the full circumstances of Katopola’s termination of employment.

Kamanga even requested that the PSC should formally write him to seek opinion, according to the memo.

“Sir, specifically, the Solicitor General has requested for Conditions of Service, the details of the decision taken by the [PSC] and the circumstances leading to that decision,” wrote Kachinjika.

A week later, on May 30 2012, the Speaker sent Katopola on compulsory leave through a letter to the CoP reference number COP/PSC/09.

“Pending conclusion of matters surrounding your position as Clerk of Parliament which you are already aware of, the Parliamentary Service Commission has resolved to send you on compulsory leave with effect from today,” wrote Chimunthu Banda. 

This letter also did not give reasons.

On Tuesday evening, Chimunthu Banda said in an interview that the President is yet to act on the Commission’s recommendation, almost seven weeks after receiving the PSC communication.

In a telephone interview on Wednesday this week, Katopola told The Nation she could not be left in suspense for much longer and said she plans to go to court because, given the length of her compulsory leave; she has automatically been fired and needs her money.

Controversial as ever:
Katopola is no stranger to controversy and high stakes power plays centred on her.

Last Tuesday, she was arrested and charged with abuse of office under the Penal Code in connection with a 2008 colour photocopying and binding contract she gave to Monick Trends, a business she used to run. She is currently on police bail.

But the National Audit office and the PSC cleared her on this, saying there was nothing wrong considering the urgent circumstances under which the procurement was done.

She believes the arrest is a tactic to intimidate her into leaving Parliament without a fuss and to deprive her of appropriate compensation.

“This whole issue is politically motivated because of what has transpired in the last two months. My issue borders on governance, rule of law and constitutionalism,” argued Katopola, a trained lawyer.

The CoP said she does not intend to return to Parliament even if the President said so because she fears for her life now and has lost trust in the institution.

This week, Katopola refused to certify and send to the President for assent bills that Parliament passed in the last Budget Meeting, a development many feared could jeopardise, among other things, necessary legal formalities to operationalise the 2012/13 budget which is crucial to opening of aid taps closed partly because of governance concerns in the Bingu wa Mutharika regime.

 But government said this week that a deputy CoP can process the paper work leading to assent.

When Mutharika appointed her in 2005 as the first female CoP, she implemented sweeping reforms that some MPs thought were uncalled for.
One parliamentarian even said in 2006 that she deserved a beating for some decisions she took.

Another MP said she is impolite to them while others wanted her impeached. The Monick Trends scandal later gave the PSC ammunition to recommend to then President Mutharika in 2008 to remove her from office on grounds of misconduct.

Mutharika refused to endorse the Commission’s decision, forcing the PSC at the time to successfully move a motion in Parliament to remove her from office. It never worked. Katopola went to court to challenge the House’s decision and won the case. The High Court reinstated her.