JUST after President Robert Mugabe began reading the second paragraph of his supposedly Parliament opening speech, it dawned on his spokesperson George Charamba that disaster had struck. Panic and confusion followed in the public gallery where he was seated.
His boss was in possession of the wrong speech. Charamba was seated about 50 metres away from Mugabe in the bemused crowd.
Damage control initiatives went in motion, beginning in the public gallery where Mugabe’s daughter, Bona, her husband and several inlaws, diplomats and State security details, were also following proceedings.
Charamba, his spokesperson for three decades, first point of call, was to advise State security and get advice on how to proceed.
Two options immediately emerged — either to proceed into the august house and advise the Speaker of Parliament Jacob Mudenda to hand over a new correct copy, or wait until he was done, advise the august house of the mistake, and have the President rereading the correct one.
As discussions became more intense, with behind the scenes haggling over how to address the disaster, Mugabe proceeded with his speech, “eating” much of the pages.
Time was running out. Charamba went down from the public gallery, converged with security in the corridors, and he sent a note to advise Vice-President Emmerson Mnangagwa, and Mudenda of the disaster. They all agreed a special note had to be written to the President — advising him that he was reading a wrong speech — asking him to devise a way of setting it aside and resume reading the correct one.
Despite the President being advised of the mistake through a note written and signed by Charamba, he kept going with the old speech, adding fire and confusion to the whole debacle. There was a general expectation that he would heed the advice, and proceed accordingly.
After it emerged he wasn’t going to apply brakes, at that point Charamba, with intelligence details of Mugabe’s inner circle, agreed that the President — after finishing the speech — could immediately summon Parliament back and re-read the correct one.
Just after finishing the address, Mugabe, Mnangagwa, the Speaker and Charamba, were also of that view. Time was not on their side. It was suggested that the President could come back, summon legislators and read the correct copy.
But there were no rules provided that stipulated that the President could immediately reconvene a special session of Parliament and read the correct speech.
What he had read was now a matter of public and Parliament record, and could not be easily withdrawn without following Parliament procedures. This was immediately shot down after legal counsel.
Meanwhile, Mugabe was meant to attend a special Local Government ministry reception at a local hotel hosted by Saviour Kasukuwere.
Charamba, in a damage control mood, again suggested that Mugabe would read the correct speech at the reception, which was to be attended by legislators and other invited guests. A brief statement was released to the media, indicating the President had read the wrong speech, and it was accompanied by an apology, and an indication that Mugabe could then read the correct speech at the Ministry of Local Government reception.
This approach was shot down at around 2pm. Parliament legal officers, after a meeting with intelligence officers and the Speaker, felt it didn’t make legal sense to have the President opening Parliament at a hotel. The validity of the speech, and its admissibility as a Parliament document of record, would be lost. A Ministry of Local Government reception was not a proper parliamentary sitting, it was advised.
Charamba, struggling to clear the mess, his name, and restore honour and dignity to the Office of the President, then sought legal advice on Parliament rules and procedures, on how to legally rectify the mistake, without flouting parliamentary rules.
New persuasive legal advice emerged. What now had to happen was to reconvene a new Parliament session, following legal rules that empower the President to summon Parliament. During the session, the leader of the House would seek leave of the House to table a motion seeking withdrawal of the presented and recorded speech as per parliamentary rules and procedures.
Once the leave had been granted, the leader of the House would then table the correct speech, from which a debate on the forthcoming bills would follow.
Mnangagwa, Mugabe and Mudenda reluctantly agreed to this new arrangement after legal counsel.
Around 4pm of Tuesday afternoon, it was agreed that Mugabe would then summon Parliament for a special sitting to adopt the correct speech to be tabled by the leader of the House.
Around 5pm, radio broadcasts followed that all legislators were being summoned for the special sitting.
While Charamba blamed the mix-up on the secretariat in the President’s Office, close security were already busy trying to understand how this could have happened, making interviews at Munhumutapa Building to seek answers and explanations.
The following day, opposition Movement for Democratic Change legislators were resisting attempts to table the correct speech without an apology. The development, they claimed, had embarrassed “our” President, and the country, and that heads should roll.