“BUNGE MOVES TO ASSERT ITS POWERS”:Government leaders summoned to answer charges of ‘belittling the National Assembly’

Pius Msekwa

THE words in the heading of this article are borrowed from THE CITIZEN Newspaper of last Thursday, 9th February, 2017; in which it reported as follows: “Parliament yesterday unanimously resolved to summon Dar es Salaam Regional Commissioner Paul Makonda, and Arumeru District Commissioner Alexander Mnyeti, to be questioned by a Committee of the House (the Standing Committee on the Immunities, Powers and Privileges of Parliament), over the issue of belittling the National Assembly”.

Essentially, this issue is related to a doctrine known as “the doctrine of contempt of Parliament”. For that reason, I have chosen this matter for discussion in today’s article, primarily in order to shed some more light on what it actually means. This will mostly benefit those of our readers who are particularly interested in parliamentary affairs, for it will hopefully assist them, (and possibly many others), in enhancing their understanding of this matter.

I believe that this elaboration is useful because, any other member of the public may one day find himself in the same, or similar, situation as that of Paul Makonda and Alexander Mnyeti. Therefore, as good old Shakespeare, said in Julius Caesar, they should “beware the ides of March”.

Understanding the doctrine of ‘contempt of Parliament’. The doctrine of ‘contempt of Parliament’ remains largely unknown here in Tanzania, compared to the identical doctrine called “contempt of court”, which is much better known to the general public. This difference is probably due to the fact that there has been much greater exposure by a larger number of people, to the court system and its proceedings, either directly as litigants or witnesses; or indirectly as interested observers attending court proceedings which involve their relatives or friends, compared to those who normally follow parliamentary proceedings. In addition, cases of ‘contempt of court’ do come up quite often in the court system.

Whereas, in contrast, the number of people who normally follow parliamentary proceedings, is relatively smaller, and consists mainly of those who are interested only in listening to the speeches delivered by their MPs. Furthermore, cases of ‘contempt of Parliament’ have never occurred in our Parliament in the past. This means that there has been no previous public experience or exposure to this matter and, consequently, there is very little understanding of it.

But since we have made reference to the other issue of “contempt of court”, it might also be helpful to complete the picture with a brief elaboration of that matter. The doctrine of ‘contempt of court’. Everyone who is familiar with the court system is presumably aware of the existence of an offence called “contempt of court”.

Justice B D Chipeta, at page 219 of his book titled ‘A Magistrates’ Manual’, describes that offence in the following terms:- “Nothing should be done or omitted to be done, in court or out of court, which shows disrespect to or with reference to the presiding Judge or Magistrate; or which obstructs or interferes , or in any way hinders the course of justice”.

Justice Chipeta explains further that “in order to ensure that Judicial proceedings are conducted in an atmosphere of seriousness, serenity and dignity; Judges and Magistrates are clothed with the very important power of punishing such transgressors summarily for contempt of court”.

The offence of ‘contempt of Parliament’. The offence which is cited as “contempt of Parliament” may similarly be described as ‘an act committed by any person which shows disrespect to Parliament, or with reference to its Presiding Officer”.

In other words, it is an offence against the authority of the House, and this generally means that if any person, by his word or deed, shows disrespect to the House, or its Presiding Officer, that person will be held as having acted in contempt of Parliament.

This, and other offences against the authority of Parliament, are prescribed in the Parliamentary Immunities, Powers and Privileges Act, no. 3 of 1988. Section 24 of that Act provides as follows:- “Any person shall be guilty of an offence (of contempt of Parliament) who :- (a) Having been called upon to give evidence before the Assembly, or a Committee thereof, refuses to be sworn or to make an affirmation; or (b) Being a witness, he misconducts himself; or (c) Causes an obstruction or disturbance within the precincts of the Assembly chamber during a sitting of the Assembly or a Committee thereof; (d) Shows disrespect in speech or manner towards the Speaker; or (e) Commits any other act of intentional disrespect to, or with reference to the proceedings of the Assembly or Committee of the Assembly, or to any person presiding at such proceedings” The power of Parliament to punish offenders. One of the corporate privileges of Parliament is to punish offenders against its authority, which includes the offence of contempt of Parliament. The procedure for punishing such offenders is prescribed in the Rules of the House.

However, together with that power of Parliament itself taking action to punish them there is an alternative option which may be adopted in such cases.

This option is provided for in section 12(3) of the same Act, and reads as follows:- “The Assembly or, as the case may be, a Committee thereof may, in relation to any act, matter or thing, recommend to the Speaker that he requests the Attorney- General to take steps to bring to trial before a court of competent jurisdiction, any person connected with an offence under this Act”. In that connection, it may be useful also to draw attention to the provisions of section 26 of the same Act, which makes provision for another little known offence, which is called “perjury”.

The offence of perjury is which is another little known offence, mainly because there have been no cases of perjury which have been prosecuted in our Parliament in the past. For that reason, the general public, and even the Parliamentarians themselves, have had no experience or exposure to it. That is why, whereas in fact, cases of perjury have actually occurred in the past, probably for lack of awareness that they were perjury cases, they were not prosecuted.

The case of Hon Augustine Lyatonga Mrema’s. One example of a member of our Parliament who actually committed the offence of perjury, but luckily escaped prosecution, is that of Hon Augustine Lyatonga Mrema, who was at the material time member of Parliament for Temeke Constituency.

The facts of that case were as follows:- On 16th June, 1998, during his contribution to the debate on the Budget speeches presented by the Minister of Finance and the Minister of State, President’s Office, responsible for Planning, Hon Mrema told the National Assembly that there was an official scheme by the Government to assassinate him and two other people, whom he named as Mr Seif Sharif Hamad, Secretary-General of the Civic United Front (CUF), and Lieutenant- General Imran Kombe, retired Director-General of the Tanzania Intelligence Services (TSS).

Following that serious allegation, the then Prime Minister Hon Frederick Sumaye, rose to refute that statement made by Hon Mrema, which the Prime Minster claimed was false and baseless; and requested the Speaker to order Hon Mrema to substantiate his allegations.

Because of the seriousness of Hon Mrema’s allegations, the Hon Speaker duly ordered Hon Mrema to submit his evidence to the House on the fifth parliamentary sitting day, counting from the day he had made the said allegations.

Accordingly on the due date, Hon Mrema submitted three documents, which he laid on the Table of the House. One of them showed that there was an official meeting held on 4th April, 1996; which had resolved to assassinate him and those two other persons.

The other was a letter from the Minister of Home Affairs to the Inspector-General of Police, directing him to ensure that Hon Mrema is dealt with appropriately; and the third was a letter from the Secretary- General of Chama cha Mapinduzi(CCM), directing the Government to closely monitor the Opposition members of Parliament .

The Speaker decided that these documents be debated by the whole House, in order to determine whether or not, the House was satisfied that they provided credible evidence which could be relied on. Hon Mrema was the first member to be called to speak.

In his contribution, he testified that he had been told by Lieutenant- General Imran Kombe himself, about the meeting held on 4th April, 1996, which had decided to carry out the assassinations. And since Imran Kombe had indeed been subsequently shot to death by police officers on that same day in a special operation, Hon Mrema claimed that because Imran Kombe had said these words prior to being killed, this was a ‘dying declaration’ which clearly fortifies his evidence.

He also relied on other evidence, mostly taken from stories published newspapers. Parliament decides to punish Hon Mrema. At the end of the debate, as usual, Parliament was asked by the Speaker to make their decision on the matter, whereupon the majority rejected Hon Mrema’s evidence; and went on to suspend him from attending the sittings of the House for the remainder of that Budget session, which was forty days.

He must have been very lucky though, to get away with this relatively light sentence because, had the House wanted, or been minded to do so, it could have taken the route mentioned above, of suing Hon Mrema for the offence of perjury, under the provisions of section 26 of the Parliamentary Immunities, Powers and Privileges Act, 1988.

That section provides as follows:- “Any proceedings before the Assembly or Committee thereof at which any person gives evidence or produces any document, shall be deemed to be judicial proceedings for the purposes of sections 102, 106, 108 and 109 of the Penal Code”.

And section 102 of the Penal Code (which prescribes the penalty for the offence of perjury in judicial proceedings), states as follows:- “Any person who commits perjury, or suborns perjury, is liable to imprisonment for seven years”.

Looking back at that episode, one could say that Hon. Mrema was exceptionally lucky, in the sense that the House, having rejected his evidence, implying that he had therefore lied to the House in the course of its judicial proceedings, but mercifully restrained itself from recommending to the Speaker that he requests the Attorney-General “to take the steps to bring Hon Mrema to trial before a court of competent jurisdiction for the offence of perjury”; which the House was satisfied he had committed.

Because a similar conviction by the court would have condemned him to seven years in jail. Now, as we have been told, “Parliament has moved to assert its powers”; the next transgressor should beware, he or she may not have the same luck !

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