Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development George Chaponda yesterday justified his involvement in the procurement of maize from Zambia by Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc).
He said this when he appeared before the joint committee of Parliament probing maize procurement from Zambia.
During the meeting, Chaponda described as unfair allegations that he had a cut in the $13 million (about K9.9 billion) difference of the sale of maize by suppliers from the neighbouring country.
“It is unfair that I have become the victim when I was not involved in the nitty-gritty of the financing. It is unfair for me to be alleged to have pocketed K9.9 billion because of people misunderstanding the difference between $345 and $215. I think this country cannot go far if such wild accusations can be made,” he said.
An attempt by the committee co-chairperson Joseph Chidanti Malunga to stop him from responding to allegations outside of the committee inquiry did not stop him.
“Concerning the issue of the host, do you want me to be frank? I feel this has been a waste of time to tell you frankly. The amount of money that has been used on this could have helped the common man out there.
“Two, I think this committee is contrary to Section 152 of the Standing Orders because when going to Zambia you did not take the whole committee. Three, because of this there has been lack of objectivity in certain instances. That is my personal assessment,” he said.
Co-chairperson Joseph Chidanti Malunga was forced to explain why he took to Zambia a selected number of members of the committee.
Before the outburst, Chaponda had explained to the committee that his reasons for leading a delegation of four people, including Admarc chief executive officer Foster Mulumbe to Zambia was to represent Malawi in persuading them to lift a maize export ban.
He admitted that there were certain actions that his ministry and Admarc took that were unusual such as single sourcing, but this was due to the dire 1.1 million metric tonnes maize shortage prevalent in the country at the time.
Chaponda distanced himself from any allegations that his involvement in the deal extended to financial transactions or identification of suppliers even after admitting that several suppliers approached him personally to sell maize to the government, among them Transglobe Produce Ltd.
“It would not have been proper to send a CEO to go and meet the Minister of Agriculture in Zambia. Protocol demands that an issue of such a nature requires minister to minister, government to government discussion,” he said of his trip to Zambia on May 18.
To explain his second trip to Zambia in October, Chaponda said when Admarc reported that they did not find a supplier even after Zambian government assurances, he intervened by seeking the indulgence of Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu who allowed the lifting of the maize ban for Zambia Cooperative Federation (ZCF) to supply maize.
“When the contract was entered into with ZCF, the financial deals were not under my mandate, those were done with the Ministry of Finance where it was agreed that it would be $345 per tonne and a Letter of Credit was established. As you know, a Letter of Credit is the safest procurement process because you are not given the money,” he said.
But the inquiry was not without flared tempers as Chaponda tried to emphasise his points, especially when committee members continued to press him on his involvement and alleged interference on Transglobe Produce Export Ltd.
On several occasions, Chaponda seemed to admit that the decision to buy maize was done in haste when he likened the maize shortage last year to a house on fire with a child inside requiring breaking of doors to effect the rescue.
“When examining this case, examine it like a house is burning and a child is inside. The government was under panic to provide humanitarian maize and commercial maize to those who could afford to buy. You must understand that the whole Southern Africa did not have maize; Zimbabwe, South Africa had no maize and they were all looking to Zambia,” he explained.
But after making his submission, Dowa East parliamentarian Richard Chimwendo Banda informed Chaponda that ZCF told the committee in Zambia that it had enough maize to supply Admarc but they were stopped due to the inquiry into the sale.
On its way back from Zambia, the committee stopped in Chipata to appreciate the maize that ZCF said it had in supply, amounting to over 100 000 MT.
But Chaponda retorted: “If ZCF had the maize, and contract is there, ZCF would have supplied the maize by now but until the Letter of Credit expired, only 4 100 MT was delivered.”
Responding to the Transglobe query from Chimwendo Banda and why Zambian officials allegedly introduced them at State House as a potential supplier of the Malawi maize not long after the minister left, Chaponda claimed that Transglobe was desperate to sell the maize perhaps fearing that it would rot.
Chaponda schooled the committee that Transglobe could not have featured at a meeting at State House in Zambia because the date of the export license given to the company did not coincide with the date of his meeting with President Lungu.
“Transglobe said it had an export licence, but I told them they could only deal with ZCF as the identified supplier, to act as a subcontractor, this is why the supply of 50 000 metric tonnes was considered. But let me repeat, there was no handling of money. All I was interested in was ZCF supplying maize,” he said.
While agreeing that indeed he interfered in the procurement process, Chaponda said this was at the level of providing policy guidance as a ministry when he noted the danger that maize would not be supplied.
On the ZCF and Kaloswe contracts and termination, Chaponda said he was only aware of the ZCF contract and only learnt about Kaloswe from news reports.