Malawi’s Ombudswoman has received what she believes are death threats in connection with an investigation she has launched into alleged large-scale graft in the government’s Green Belt Initiative, established to shield millions of peasant farmers from drought.
At issue is how 177 tractors and 144 maize shellers bought for the use of small farmers were snapped up at nominal prices by government officials, in a scam allegedly disguised as a routine auction of government equipment.
The tractors, purchased for R740 000 each, were sold in 2014 for R100 000. The sale raised a paltry MK600-million (R12-million), meaning that the balance of the bank loan for the purchase of the tractors must be repaid by the Malawian taxpayer.
In March this year the Malawi Broadcasting Corporation quoted former agriculture minister Allan Chiyembekeza as revealing that the sale of the equipment followed normal tender procedures and that interested individuals or groups submitted bids.
“Evaluation of the bids was done by officers from different ministries and departments to ensure transparency. All bidders that met the set criteria were offered the opportunity to buy the machinery,” Chiyembekeza said.
The government has never explained why the machinery and equipment were put out to tender instead of being handed over to farmers.
Asked again this week, the permanent secretary in the agriculture ministry, Erica Maganga said: “The issue is being handled by the office of the Ombudsman and we have provided all the necessary information regarding the sale of the tractors and other equipment.
“I would like to request you to be patient and wait for the outcome of the report by the Ombudsman.”
Beneficiaries allegedly include the Zimbabwe-based Bineth Farm, owned by the family of former president Bingu wa Mutharika, and top government officials who allegedly include Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Minister and ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) spin doctor Francis Kasaila; Speaker of Parliament Richard Msowoya; and the company Mulli Brothers Holdings, which has an umbilical bond with the DPP.
Other beneficiaries will be revealed when the Ombudswoman delivers her report to the parliamentary speaker she is investigating.
The tractors and the shellers were part of a $50-million (MK34.5-billion, or R690-million) development scheme in the central district of Salima funded by a loan from the Export Import Bank of India (Exim Bank).
Also planned as part of the scheme were a sugar mill and an irrigation scheme for small sugar cane producers who would feed the factory.
The scheme is lying largely idle and and has been damaged by vandalism, while the mill was built but is heavily under-utilised because not enough sugar cane is being produced.
The sale of the tractors contributed to the failure of the scheme, as well as the fact that peasant farmers lack sufficient land and expertise for commercial cane production.
Malawi’s Ombudsman, Martha Chizuma-Mwangonde, put the issue on the national agenda in May this year when she wrote to the ministry of agriculture and food security demanding answers about the tractor sale.
“The loan [from Exim Bank] was intended to purchase various machinery and equipment, including tractors, to be used by smallholder farmers in rural areas for the purposes of mechanising their agricultural operations,” she wrote.
“It is alleged that these tractors have not reached the intended beneficiaries. It is further alleged that [they] have been sold to senior public officers, contrary to the justification put before the National Assembly when the loan authorisation was being debated and authority sought …”
Chizuma-Mwangonde said that since initiating the inquiry, she had received what she took to be death threats. “I’ve been told by on many occasions by different people that ‘I need to take care of myself’,” the 37-year-old told the Centre for Investigative Journalism Malawi (CIJM).
She did not disclose whether she has reported the death threats to the law enforcement authorities or beefed up her security.
The risks are real. Last year the second in command of Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau, Issa Njauju, was murdered, allegedly in connection with the Cashgate scandal. No one has yet been arrested.
The ambitious Greenbelt project aimed to put about a million hectares of farmland under irrigation and improve food security for peasant farmers, who make up 70% of the populace.
But alarm bells started ringing over when an April 9 2013 notification from the Reserve Bank of India to Exim Bank authorised it to lend the Malawi government $76.5-million (MK54-billion or R1.1-billion) to buy plant and machinery for the project.
Three years earlier the Malawi parliament had authorised the government to borrow only $50-million for this purpose.
Last week Parliament’s public accounts committee called for state organs including the Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Auditor General, the Reserve Bank of Malawi and the Financial Intelligence Unit to probe what happened to the $26-million discrepancy between the two amounts.
“This money might have been siphoned to offshore accounts or split among greedy politicians,” said committee deputy chairperson Kamlepo Kalua.
The Malawi Hansard of December 2010 quotes the former Minister of Finance, Ken Kandodo, as drumming up support for the enactment of the Export and Import Bank of India Line of Credit Loan Authorisation Bill.
Kandodo said the loan would be repaid over 20 years.
Under section 20 of the Malawi constitution, the Ombud has the power to investigate alleged injustice, abuse of power or unfair treatment by any government employee.
“We can reverse decisions. If we find corruption we can ask the Anti-Corruption Bureau or the Director of Prosecution to prosecute. If people don’t abide by our directive we can approach the courts with contempt proceedings,” Mwangonde said.
But she added that dealing with government departments “is not easy. From my experience I would put compliance at 50-50. No wonder my predecessors decided to simply let sleeping dogs lie,” she said.
A major hurdle facing her in probing the sugar mill disaster is the Ombudsman Act, which stipulates that her office’s decision are reviewable by the High Court.
“However, until the disgruntled party approaches the courts for that review our directives remain enforceable under the law. The next two weeks will be very telling on what remedies we may order,” she said.
Malawian economist Henry Kachaje said the Green Belt Initiative was sad case of “borrowing to become poor”.
“Our children and their children will continue to live in poverty because we allowed our government to cheat us and borrow in the name of Green Belt Initiative, while diverting the money to ‘personal use’. And they got away with it,” Kachaje said.
*This report was produced by the Centre for Investigative Journalism Malawi in association with the AmaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism.