Political temperatures in the Zambian national assembly are rising. Twice in 48 hours opposition members of parliament recentlywalked out of the chamber in protest.
They trooped out on February 22 and again the following day. They did not vote on a motion to regularise the presi-dential reorganisation of some mini-stries and departments.
Predictably, the government romped to an easy victory, but the opposition was not exactly smarting from it. Leader of the opposition in parliament Felix Mutati said they wanted to demonstrate unity.
"You touch one of us then you touch us all," he declared. "We walked out because we wanted them to defer the motion. We were going to vote against it ... We wanted the Speaker to exercise discretion on the matter."
Ostensibly, the walkouts were in protest at the Speaker's rulings. In reality however, they seemed more a search for operating space by the opposition as the political atmosphere began to heat up. Opposition MPs have become more assertive and are increasingly unhappy about what they perceive to be a high-handed leadership style that does not accord the National Assembly or citizens due deference.
At the core is the now controversial decision of President Michael Sata to reassign two districts from the Southern Province to two other provinces. This triggered the first walkout. Speaker Patrick Matibini had ruled that a member of the opposition United Party for National Development (UPND) needed to ask a substantive question to get a comprehensive answer instead of the point of order in which he questioned the constitutionality of threats of arrest for Southern Province chiefs who wanted to demonstrate against the re-assignment of districts.
At that, opposition MPs walked, angered by what they perceived to be the failure by Matibini to make a clear ruling on a constitutional matter. They said that they did not understand his hesitation when the Bill of Rights guaranteed the right to demonstrate.
Mutati described the walkout as a "first step" and that other options, including impeachment of the president and removal of the speaker, were on the table.
Passions were already high on the opposition benches when the House resumed sitting on February 21 because of the perception of increasing constitutional breaches by the president.
The source of this irritation was Sata's realignment of departments which resulted in new ministries. Constitutionally, he requires parliamentary sanction.
But while the National Assembly was in recess, Sata reassigned the Department of Tourism from Information to Foreign Affairs to create the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Tourism. He reassigned the Labour Department to create the Ministry of Information, Broadcasting and Labour, which left labour unions very unhappy. He also created the Department of Rural Development.