The High Court has dismissed an application by the State to throw out a case in which the Ombudsman wants Secretary to the Treasury and Principal Secretary (PS) for Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development jailed for ignoring court orders.
Presiding judge Charles Mkandawire found guilty Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development PS Grey Nyandule Phiri and his Treasury counterpart Cliff Chiunda of snubbing a court order issued by the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal for them to apologise to the public for procuring and disposing of farm equipment bought using about K37 billion ($50 million) of borrowed funds.
However, through private practice lawyer Chancy Gondwe, the two public officers asked the court to hear their side on the matter before pronouncing either a custodial of noncustodial sentence against them. The officials later applied for the dismissal of the case.
In its application for the dismissal of the case, the State, among others, argued that it complied with the Supreme Court ruling by issuing a public apology; hence, no need for the court to proceed with the contempt of court proceedings.
But in his ruling dated October 22 2019, Mkandawire dismissed the application and ordered the State to pay costs of the application in court.
While agreeing with the State that there was some level of compliance with the ruling, the judge said there were still grounds for the court to hear the contempt of court case.
Said Mkandawire: “What counsel is touching on is the central pillar of this case and it is the issue that awaits the court’s enquiry. It is, therefore, unfortunate to hear from counsel that there is no need for enquiry now.
“I do not want to be tempted to enter into the horizon of discussing the substantive issue here. It is, however, very important to remind counsel for the respondents that the judgement and orders of the Supreme Court of Appeal contained specific time frames.”
In an interview yesterday, the Ombudsman Martha Chizuma welcomed the ruling, saying her office is now waiting for the court to set a date for a hearing on the matter.
She said: “The Office of the Ombudsman asked the High Court to hear the Ombudsman’s application for contempt of court order against two principal secretaries for allegedly disobeying a court ruling relating to disposal of tractors bought using public funds. The hearing will now be on the substantive contempt proceedings.”
On February 11 this year, the Supreme Court ordered the two public officers to issue a public “apology for buying equipment that was archaic and sitting idle and deteriorating, thus unnecessarily indebting Malawians and for the illegal selling of the tractors”.
Revelations of faulty procurement and dubious disposal of the tractors and 144 maize shellers came to light in 2016. The equipment was part of the Green Belt Initiative to put about one million hectares under irrigation. However, only 77 tractors were put to use while 100 were sold to senior government officials, politicians and businesspersons.
Following an investigation that culminated in a report titled The Present Toiling, The Future Overburdened in which the Ombudsman highlighted cases of gross maladministration, the office of the Ombudsman demanded an apology from controlling officers at the two ministries.