The official opening of the third session of the country’s eighth Parliament was a comedy of errors Tuesday, beginning with President Robert Mugabe delivering an old speech, which was not broadcast live as usual to the surprise of television viewers and radio listeners.
All this came in the backdrop of alleged death threats against opposition Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) lawmakers who had planned to heckle the president, as happened during his State of the Nation Address (SONA) last month.
Tuesday’s opening of parliament started well with state media reporting that all was set for President Mugabe’s speech to parliament. The usual praise singers, comprising Zanu PF supporters, members of the Vapostori Sect and others sang and ululated outside parliament when Mr. Mugabe arrived with his wife, Grace, in a vintage black Rolls-Royce.
He inspected a guard of honor as Air Force of Zimbabwe jets flew past. A 21-gun salute was also fired as part of the proceedings ahead of the speech.
The Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation had set up its outside broadcasting equipment and deployed staff a day ahead to prepare for the much publicized event.
However, events took a dramatic turn when a spat ensued between the chief whip of the opposition MDC led by Morgan Tsvangirai and Speaker of the House, Jacob Mudenda, over allegations raised by MDC chief whip Innocent Gonese, that they had received death threats against any member planning to embarrass the president by heckling him as happened at last month’s SONA.
It was then that the ZBC staffers were ordered not to broadcast the event live.
More drama followed when the usually poised and meticulous President Mugabe took to the podium and began delivering an old speech. In explanation, presidential spokesman George Charamba acknowledged there was a mix-up in his office, leading to a delay in the correct speech that President Mugabe delivered later than expected.
Viewers and onlookers seeking an explanation for the abrupt cessation of the broadcast, received none, outside confirmation by ZBC staffers, who cannot be named as they are not allowed to speak to the press, that they had received a directive not to go live.
However, this was reportedly before it was known that the President Mugabe’s speech was the wrong one.
Meanwhile, in sharp contrast to the last parliamentary sitting where they heckled and booed Mr. Mugabe, the MDC members sat quietly, while ruling Zanu PF lawmakers clapped at regular intervals. It’s not clear whether the lawmakers at the time realized Mr. Mugabe was reading the wrong speech.
For instance, Mr. Mugabe referred to the state of the economy in the speech “The economic growth which was initially projected at 3.2 percent is now expected to register 1.5 percent growth in 2015.”
Regarding death threats to opposition lawmakers, Gonese said lawmakers had received messages from a private number warning them against heckling the president or risk death if they did so.
He said the message read in part, “Immunity ends in Parliament, if you step out of parliament you are an ordinary citizen, act wisely and don’t disturb the president during the proceedings in Parliament you will be in danger.”
Gonese told Studio 7 the death threats are disturbing. “It undermines the integrity of parliament. Members of parliament are there to represent the people. If somethings is said that does not resonate with what people feel on the ground Members of Parliament will obviously react and I believe it’s their right.
"I don’t think that we should resort to extra judicial measures. If anything that happens in parliament has to be dealt with, it must be done according to parliamentary procedures."
Prospers Mutseyami, another lawmaker, said he also received the death threats through his mobile phone.
“If you want your life you just need not interfere with parliamentary proceedings today. Anything else to the contrary, we will take you head-on.”
Another opposition lawmaker, Nelson Chamisa, said he would have confronted Mr. Mugabe if he had seen the message before his speech.
“If I had seen this message before I would have raised it with the President right infront of him to say you can’t be talking of peace when you’re threatening MPs. What more of citizens and ordinary Zimbabweans,” said Chamisa.
Meanwhile, the opposition MDC-T says Mr. Mugabe should resign immediately saying reading a wrong speech, is “a clear and unmitigated sign that he is too old and therefore, no longer fit for purpose.”
In a statement, the MDC-T said this clearly shows that President Mugabe “no longer has the requisite mental faculties needed to continue in office as the head of state.”