Fire on Tuesday razed Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development George Chaponda’s office wing at Capital Hill in Lilongwe.
The fire, which started around 11.15am in the minister’s office, spread to other offices, including those of principal secretaries and some directors at the ministry’s headquarters.
Special assistant to the minister Simon Boyce said a messenger who was in the office of the minister’s secretary informed him that it all started after a bolt of lightning around 11.15am.
He said the initial smell of something burning was ignored.
According to Boyce, when the smell became persistent, the messenger’s instincts led her into entering the minister’s office where she found a plasma television set that was connected to a socket.
Boyce said by the time she went to inform the authorities, the fire had already spread to the built-in carpet and they failed to retrieve any office property, including the minister’s computers.
“I am not surprised to note that the fire had started from a socket, from the minister’s office, because this is the second time this has happened. Several months ago, a similar incident happened [on] the same socket, but that fire was quickly put out,” he added.
A witness, who sought anonymity and whose office was completely damaged, said her colleagues who rushed to her office alerted her of the fire that was spreading.
It took almost an hour for fire-fighters to arrive on the scene.
“We tried to call all the emergency lines,—at the police and fire departments—but they went unanswered. We had to send a driver to the Fire Department. By the time they arrived, the fire had already spread to the affected wing,” a ministry employee stated regretfully.
One official said had there been functional water and fire hydrants at the ministry, the fire could have been quickly put out. However, he noted that due to the Lilongwe Water Board’s water rationing, there was no running water in the building.
In an interview, Secretary to the Office of President and Cabinet Lloyd Muhura, who was among several senior government officials witnessing the fire in one wing of the building, said they are yet to get to the bottom of the cause of the fire. He refused to comment further on the matter.
Inspector General of Police Lexten Kachama, who was also at the scene, said the extent of the damage could not be immediately known, but indicated that the police is expected to investigate the cause of the fire.
Minister of Civic Education, Culture and Community Development Patricia Kaliati, and Lilongwe City Council chief executive officer Moza Zeleza were among officials at the scene.
Over six firefighters from the Malawi Defence Force (MDF), the Lilongwe City Council and Kamuzu International Airport eventually put out the fire.
During the morning session of Parliament, Rumphi East member of Parliament Kamlepo Kalua alerted the House of the Capital Hill fire.
The fire comes barely days after findings of a commission of inquiry instituted by President Peter Mutharika recommended that Chaponda be investigated by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) over his questionable conduct as Malawi was in the process of importing relief maize from Zambia.
Meanwhile, on social media and during general discussions, Malawians differed in their reactions to the fire incident. Some expressed concern and empathy with Chaponda over what seems a bad patch in his life, as he faces serious political and social upheavals.
But other people bandied about conspiracy theories and were more worried that the fire may have destroyed vital documents and information useful in the upcoming Chaponda investigations by the ACB.
In 2004 when former Alliance for Democracy (Aford) president Chakufwa Chihana was Minister of Agriculture, fire destroyed the same building, with the accounts department taking the most damage.
At that time, there were suspicions that coupons meant for the poor had been abused and some people were demanding that a forensic audit be done.
When there were also queries that some politicians and government officials had abused millions of kwacha at the Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom), a raging fire in October 2013 destroyed the company’s Blantyre head office.
In 2014, when there was a call for a recount of votes for a ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) candidate and main opposition Malawi Congress Party (MCP) candidate, the warehouse that contained the votes went up in flames, thereby forcing the matter to ground to a halt.