ORDER! ORDER! ORDER MADAM SPEAKER
By Isaac M. Mwanza
Speaker of the National Assembly, Nellie B. K. Mutti, is one of the most astute and inspiring female lawyers of our time, with an illustrious law career.
In a journey towards a law career, this author drew inspiration from closely watching the performance of Nellie Mutti in cases such as the famous Black Mamba Trial.
But first, let’s contextualise and put a historical background as to why we fondly discuss Nellie today and how we may remember her tomorrow.
In 1991, Zambia witnessed a democratic transfer of power, now a hallmark of our democracy. Zambians delivered a landslide regime-change victory to Fredrick Chiluba and later to Michael Sata and Hakainde Hichilema.
All new leaders that took over the highest echelons of power, at each point, promised people a better life and economic prosperity.
Promises were made about open governance, accountability, respect for human rights, the full involvement of the people in political processes and decision-making, clean water, food, quality health care, better roads, shelter, employment and better wages, improved power supply, good schools, ending corruption and crime.
59 years after independence, these promises remain far-fetched dreams. Political leaders who sloganeered, “power to the people!,” always ended up turning police batons and guns against the very people they sought to liberate.
“The defeat of dictators is much easier than replacing the dictators. Building true democracy is more of a challenge. So far, we are not having much luck in Zambia because of overwhelming problem,” said Samuel S. Miyanda.
The sentiments expressed by the former and late Matero lawmaker two decades are becoming more louder and clearer. History shows that each peaceful transfer of power has not resulted in sustained growth of our democracy and progress towards respect for civil and political rights.
It has been one thing to change regimes, quite another for democracy to flourish and endure. The leaders who form government aways start their tenure on a very high note but increasingly resort to the same old methods used by colonial authorities to suppress voices of criticism.
All who criticise a ruling party that form government in Zambia are often regarded as enemies of “democracy” by the Party’s leadership and followers. The colonial mentality which classified citizens in two different classes remain deeply ingrained in many of our country’s political leaders.
At every point of our nation’s existence, there is that one class of citizens who are permitted to freely enjoy their civil and political rights and liberties because they either share the same characteristics as the ruling elites.
Another class sits at the opposite end of the political spectrum. Their rights and freedoms must routinely be checked or even suppressed. The result of this classification is that a section of the Zambian citizenry has to withstand violations of their rights under each successive administration.
The United States Department of State through its 2022 Country Reports for Zambia has detailed some of the ongoing violations of human rights under the current regime. Some of the abuses citizens have experienced in the last 32 years are a legacy of the one-party state era and continued existence of colonial laws and practices.
In many cases these violations are a result of new initiatives by successive governments. For example, intimidation of members of the opposition parties by the State in 1995 increased significantly when Super Ken had announced a formal return to politics.
In May 1996, the MMD regime had to make radical changes to the republican constitution to bar Kaunda and his Vice President Senior Chief Inyambo Yeta from contesting elections that year. The move led to discontent among members of the former ruling party. What followed were bomb scares in various locations.
One gentleman called the switchboard of the Intercontinental Hotel in Lusaka and told the operator that there was a bomb planted at the hotel, leading to panic and evacuation.
Another bomb was reportedly planted at the then Lusaka International Airport. Bomb Expert Gordon Banda and his colleague were sent to diffuse that bomb. In the reported process of being diffused, the bomb went off killing Mr Banda and injuring his colleague.
The government blamed a shadowy group called the “Black Mamba.” Senior Chief Inyambo Yeta and seven other UNIP officials were arrested on 3 and 4 June, 1996, charged with treason and murder – both of which are non bailable – and promptly committed to the Lusaka High Court.
Nellie Mutti was one of the members of legal defence team and became a star. In hindsight, Nellie’s meticulous cross-examination of State witnesses helped to secure the release of the accused persons.
These witnesses included a man injured in the bomb blast which killed Gordon Banda; a switchboard operator at Intercontinental Hotel; and the then Inspector General of Police Francis Ndhlovu.
After posing soul-searching questions on the bomb blast at the Airport, Nellie summed up her cross-examination of the State witness:
“I put it to you that, you and Gordon Banda (the bomb expert) went to the airport to plant a bomb so you could falsely implicate these accused persons and in the process of planting, the bomb went off. What do you say?” The witness uncontrollably wept.
In another well-rehearsed testimony, a switchboard operator attempted to implicate and link Muhabi Lungu as the man who had called the hotel to relay information about a bomb planted within the hotel.
In cross examination, Nellie asked the witness what made him so confident that it was Muhabi who had called, the witness said because of his good command of English and a distinct accent.
“Is it your testimony that the only thing linking the accused is his good English and nothing else?” The witness answered in the affirmative.
Mr. Francis Ndhlovu was another interesting witness, clad in his prestigious uniform decorated with medals pinned to his uniforms. Among the medals was one Mr Ndhlovu had received after a successful mission in Mozambique.
Mr Ndhlovu majestically entered the witness box with a conviction that he was the hammer that hits a final nail to send accused persons to meet their Lord.
Nellie’s cross-examination begun from what appeared to be a friendly note, deliberately drawing the top police chief to brag a little about the medals.
“While on peace keeping mission in Mozambique, did you also plant bombs?”
“Did you also diffuse bombs in Mozambique?
“From your achievements, can you plant or diffuse a bomb?”
These questions threw the top cop off balance such that when Nellie finished her cross-examination, the man cursed the day he was appointed IG.
The trial provided no evidence to suggest the accused members from UNIP were involved in treason and murder. It was clear the accused persons were detained solely because of their political affiliation to UNIP.
At least after a speedy and fair 5-month trial, all were acquitted of the treason and murder on 1 November, 1996.
Nellie is also known to have stood up for people like Fred M’membe, former Editor of the fiercely independent Post Newspaper who is now leader of the Socialist Party, his staff writer Bright Mwape and freelance columnist Lucy Sichone.
On 27 February, 1996, Speaker of the National Assembly, Dr. Robinson Nabulyato had purportedly jailed the trio to indefinite imprisonment for contempt of Parliament in relation to articles which the three published, commenting on the then Vice President Godfrey Miyanda’s remarks in Parliament.
With her other learned colleagues, Nellie was instrumental in defending those whom the regime had accused to be enemies of “democracy”.
From the above, it can be seen that President Hakainde Hichilema’s choice of Nellie Mutti for Speaker of the National Assembly was most fitting, considering her contribution to defending the democratic space and human rights.
The Legislature is a symbol of democracy and free expression. Of the three arms of government, it is Parliament where the people must have real voices through their elected MPs. Alas! it certainly doesn’t appear so in Zambia.
The impartiality of the presiding officers, their decisions and ability to promote debate are a vital ingredient in promoting free debate among the contending parties. The impartiality or lack thereof, of the presiding officers, has a serious effect on our democratic institutions.
Sadly, Nellie now presides over an Assembly which has become aggressive in censuring people who make negative comments on the proceedings or conduct of business in the House.
Within the House itself, some of her own members who move to vigorously debate matters that make the executive uncomfortable, get to be viciously gagged instead of encouraged.
Under Speaker Nellie Mutti’s leadership, the House is constantly changing rules of engagement; rules which the UPND members in opposition freely enjoyed without repercussion at all.
In the current parliament, we see the Speaker descending to join in the debates of the House, by way of her comments, on the side of the ruling party.
Nellie finds no problem coming to the defence of the executive even if the ministers are equal to the challenge from the opposition.
Much as this author pays glowing tribute to Nellie as being among the best legal practitioners of our time, she needs to do some reflections about her new assignment.
Nellie needs to reflect on whether she still stands by her ideals, including the promotion of multi-party democracy, human rights and democratic freedoms including civil liberties as guaranteed by the Constitution of Zambia.
Her role as head of one of the National Assembly where free speech is constitutionally protected, requires of her the highest level of independence and impartiality.
She must divorce herself from any partisan leanings when she presides over the House’s business. The Speaker has a particular duty to protect the minority, exactly as she did in the sensitive court cases which I have referred to above.
It is doubly her duty to promote and protect constitutionally guaranteed freedoms as one of the most senior members of the legal profession in our country supported by her record of defending citizens from politically motivated criminal charges.
It is this author’s heartfelt wish to see the return of Nellie Mutti the lawyer with the stellar record in defending personal liberties, and political freedoms.
The Nellie Mutti that I see now, as Speaker of the National Assembly, is quite clearly out of order.