- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2005

From combined dispatches


The constitutional court temporarily halted impeachment proceedings against President Bingu wa Mutharika that were to begin today after his plea that moves to oust him are illegal.

“This order is made granting a temporary injunction binding the speaker [of parliament] not to implement the impeachment procedural rules adopted by the house until after a further order of this court,” Justice George Chimasula Phiri, head of a three-judge panel, ruled yesterday.

Malawi, reeling from a food shortage, also is in political upheaval, with opposition parties moving to have Mr. Mutharika impeached and removed from office. If the drive succeeds, it will be a first for Africa.

Critics accuse the president of flouting the constitution by summarily firing senior government officials and using public funds and resources to support his newly formed Democratic Progressive Party. The parliament opened debate on impeachment procedures on Oct. 17.

The impeachment effort began after Mr. Mutharika fell out with his mentor and predecessor, Bakili Muluzi, and founded his own party after winning elections on a Muluzi ticket in May 2004.

The court ruling was made after private lawyer Maxon Mbendera, saying he was representing the president, challenged the legality of the impeachment motion.

“The constitution empowers the president to refer to the constitutional court any dispute of a constitutional nature,” he said in court. “The president is arguing that the adopted impeachment procedures are unconstitutional and not in accordance with the rules of natural justice.”

Hearings into the case are to begin today.

According to the new impeachment procedures, Mr. Mutharika first must appear in the parliament to answer the charges. A formal vote on the impeachment motion is to be taken shortly afterward. It would require a two-thirds majority to be adopted.

If the motion passed, Mr. Mutharika would face an impeachment tribunal that would make the final decision on his fate.

The political struggle in this southern African country comes amid warnings by agencies of the United Nations that 5 million of the country’s 12 million people face hunger after the worst drought in more than a decade. The grain production this year totaled 1.3 million tons, far below the 2.2 million tons needed to feed the country.

On Oct. 15, Mr. Mutharika declared a national disaster over the food crisis, heeding calls from the opposition and church groups pleading for more food aid from international donors to avert famine.

The parliament’s legal affairs committee, which hammered out the impeachment procedures, presented a report Oct. 14 to the country’s 193 lawmakers.

“The debate on impeachment procedures is really on,” said Vin Phiri, a spokesman for the parliament. “The issue is controversial and unpredictable, and I don’t know how long the debate will be.”

Church groups have urged the parliament to set aside the impeachment proceedings to focus on the food crisis.

But Mr. Muluzi’s party, the former ruling United Democratic Front, is standing firm, saying there are eight grounds for impeaching the president.

“Most of them are not serious grounds … the impeachment process is more political than legal because it’s a question of parliamentary numbers, and it’s parliament which decides which are serious grounds,” said political scientist Boniface Dulani.

If Mr. Mutharika is removed, Vice President Cassim Chilumpha, who is close to Mr. Muluzi, would take over as president. Mr. Muluzi came to power in 1994 in Malawi’s first multiparty elections, ending three decades of iron-fisted rule by the country’s founder-president Hastings Kamuzu Banda.

According to the report on the impeachment procedures, the speaker will summon the president before the house once the parliament, which sits in Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe, decides to vote on a motion of impeachment.

News24 of South Africa, citing state television in Malawi, reported that Speaker Louis Chimango suspended parliament late Monday after Mutharika supporters smashed at least five cars belonging to opposition lawmakers, who fled the building via a back route.

The parliament reopened Tuesday amid tight security.

“There is a high police presence all over Lilongwe to provide security … it’s quite peaceful,” police spokesman Willie Mwaluka told Agence France-Presse. He said there were no signs of protesters.

A parliament source told AFP, “A full-house parliament started with question time … the situation is normal, many of the [members of parliament] are here.”

The summons to the president would outline the constitutional breaches of which he is accused. The house then would debate the motion of indictment, which requires a two-thirds majority for passage.

An impeachment tribunal would be set up within 21 days after the motion’s passage to make a final ruling on whether Mr. Mutharika would be removed from office.

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