The sight of officers clad in service uniforms and armed with security equipment at Malawi’s roadblocks gives hope that the country’s resources are safe.
But if a Weekend Nation investigation into how officers who are supposed to stop illegal charcoal transportation are allowing the smuggling of the contraband in exchange for bribes is anything to go by, then the men in uniform could be enablers of Malawi’s disappearing forest cover, not its protectors.
Our four months sting between October 2020 and January 2021 has uncovered—with pictures, video and mobile money transfer evidence—how a syndicate involving officers in the Malawi Police Service (MPS), Forestry Department, Directorate of Road Traffic and Safety Services (DRTSS) and the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) have been giving charcoal racketeers a smooth ride from Zalewa to major markets in Blantyre City.
By posing as a charcoal transporter, this reporter set out to discover how thousands of bags of charcoal find their way to Blantyre City daily despite numerous checkpoints and police patrol operations launched by law enforcers.
Our preliminary investigations led us to Neno District where we met charcoal transporters. We were told that for us to understand how it works, we should join the charcoal transporting business.
It took us about seven weeks from October for this journalist to join the business, during which he was accompanying some transporters just to observe how they are dealing with roadblocks so that he could try it out on his own. And so on November 21 2020, this reporter joined the business as a transporter, ready to ferry charcoal for the dealers in Blantyre from Neno District.
To achieve this, he partnered a transporter who owns a five tonne (Hino) lorry in Blantyre and paid him K200 000 for the day’s job with the understanding that the money that the charcoal owners will pay for transportation will also be his, with the Weekend Nation not profiting from the undercover operation.
This lorry carries 120 bags of charcoal. We left Blantyre at 11am for Neno District and arrived around 4pm. Because of the topography of the area, and that it is difficult to get bags of charcoal at one place, we went to different areas to get the goods within the district. For the first day, we collected 60 bags and spent a night there.
Around 7am the following day, we continued gathering the charcoal from various spots before starting off with a complete load of 120 bags.
At around 2pm, the bags were loaded in the lorry and covered with a tarpaulin. By 3pm the lorry was ready to start off for Blantyre with its load. But we waited for sunset as our connections in the law-enforcement could only facilitate our movements under the cover of darkness.
At 6pm, we left for Chifunga Camp in Neno where all the illegal charcoal transporters gather to start off together. We arrived at the camp around 8pm. Minutes after our arrival, our ‘fellow’ transporters reminded this reporter to ensure that ‘his’ vehicle has been cleared by Southern Region Forestry Office.
At the regional office, there is a senior official [name and official title withheld] who is responsible for curbing trafficking of all illegal forestry products. This reporter talked to him on the phone and agreed to pay K20 000 for the vehicle to have safe passage.
The money was sent to the official’s TNM Mpamba number and he confirmed to have received it. Other transporters did the same while some paid upon their arrival in Blantyre.
“Inu ndi alendo bwanayu sakukudziwani ndiye muperekeretu, ife amadziwa kale, tikapereka tikakafika [You are new in the charcoal transportation business, so you have to pay in advance because the big boss at the Forestry Department does not know you,” said one transporter.
On this day, there was a convoy of 12 vehicles transporting charcoal from Neno to Blantyre. Nine trucks were open vehicles with charcoal stacked under tarpaulins while the other three were vans.
Out of the 12, four weighing less than five tonnes each carried 120 bags each (480 bags) while the larger ones (over five tonnes) had a total of 1 600 bags with each carrying 200 bags on average. So, a total of about 2 100 bags were trafficked.
At 8pm, we waited for a green light from duty police officers and forest officials at Zalewa Roadblock before starting off from the camp. At 9.30pm the officers called and told us to proceed as that was the right time to pass through the roadblock without drawing too much attention.
Just before 10pm, we left Chifunga Camp and when we reached Pa Nkhumba near Puma Service Station, roughly a kilometre away from Zalewa Roadblock, we awaited for another signal from the officers. A few minutes later, a phone call signalled that the passage was clear.
The golden handshake
Upon arrival at Zalewa Roadblock, the barrier was already wide open and a golden handshake was exchanged as follows: a vehicle weighing less than five-tonnes paid K15 000 while any vehicle above five tonnes paid K20 000.
So, for the 12 vehicles, we paid K60 000 for four vehicles weighing under five-tonne each and K160 000 for the eight vehicles weighing five-tonnes. Thus, a sum of K240 000 exchanged hands within minutes at Zalewa. There were no receipts issued.
All 12 vehicles crossed Zalewa Roadblock at around 10.20 pm. The other stop was at Mdeka Roadblock. Here, we found nine police officers. The roadblock was not open, but two officers approached on both sides of the vehicles to collect cash.
Each vehicle paid K10 000, thus K120 000 was paid at Mdeka with no receipts issued and we were waved through. When we reached Chapasuka Stage—200 metres away from Lirangwe weighbridge—we stopped and identified among us two people to negotiate with motor examiners manning the weighbridge for ease of passage.
Weighbridge officials, apart from ensuring that vehicles above 3 500kg GVM, are weighed on entering and exiting the facility in compliance with all statutory regulations, also impound illegal goods such as charcoal; hence, their involvement.
This journalist and another transporter [name withheld] were chosen to negotiate with weighbridge officers. We found two officers in an office while four others were outside manning the barrier. We paid K15 000 for each vehicle weighing under five tonnes and K20 000 for those weighing above five tonnes. A total of K240 000 was paid to a male officer—again, no receipts were issued.
The whole transaction lasted a few minutes and we were allowed to proceed without our vehicles being weighed or examined.
One officer i had to communicate with those maning the barrier outside to allow only 12 vehicles to pass. No vehicle was checked at the weighbridge.
Wilfully avoiding to have a vehicle weighed on a weighbridge is an offence contrary to regulation 29 of the Road Traffic and it attracts a fine of $2 000 (K1.5 million), according to the DRTSS.
About 100 metres away we were stopped by an MRA checkpoint where we found three officers on duty. A golden handshake was consummated, with each vehicle paying K5 000, thus K60 000 in total.
MRA is also mandated to protect society from harmful goods apart from collecting customs; hence, they have authority to check vehicles such as those carrying charcoal.
Almost 100 metres from the MRA checkpoint, we found another police roadblock at Lirangwe checkpoint where about eight officers were on duty. Each vehicle paid K6 000 after which we were permitted to proceed.
We drove past Madziabango, then Matindi without being stopped by patrol officers. We were only stopped at Lunzu Police Unit where we found four officers with three in a patrolling vehicle. Every vehicle paid K10 000 and no receipt was issued.
After Lunzu, another police patrol vehicle registration MP2566 stopped us at New Grand and Grill popularly known as Pa Keni. They demanded cash and each vehicle paid K5 000 thus another K60 000into the pockets of another set of law enforcers.
We then stopped at GDC Police Roadblock where we found about 11 officers, including traffic police officers. Each vehicle paid K10 000, which meant K120 000 for this police barrier.
Upon approaching GDC Roadblock, we discovered that another vehicle, which was not part of our convoy, had driven passed a Chileka patrolling vehicle without a golden handshake.
The police cruiser followed the charcoal vehicle and stopped it at Kamuzu College of Nursing, where some officers were overheard shouting, “iwe tangopereka usatichedwetse.”
At Kameza Roundabout, we found two police cruisers, one had registration MP2347 while the other had no number plate. Each vehicle paid K5 000—another K60 000 gone into private hands.
From there, each charcoal vehicle proceeded to their respective markets. Blantyre has nine charcoal markets: Khama, Makata, Ndirande, Zingwangwa, Kwale, Manase, Manje, Bangwe and Chemusa.
Our vehicle took the Magalasi Road as we were to offload at Khama Market in South Lunzu where upon arrival police officers in a patrol vehicle without a registration number angrily demanded K10 000 for our vehicle. We had to pay to allow the owners of the charcoal we transported to collect their merchandise.
For this night alone, this reporter spent K111 000 and for the 12 vehicles, at least K1.2 million on average was spent to bribe officers.
On that day, 2 100 bags of charcoal passed through the checkpoints between Zalewa and Blantyre City without capture by authorities.
By extrapolation, the 2 100 illegal bags of charcoal that officers on duty allowed to pass through cost Neno District alone 500 mature trees, thus clearing about seven hectares (ha) of forest cover.
According to a study of charcoal consumption, trade and production in Malawi, Blantyre alone uses 2.7 million standard bags on charcoal per annum. The report estimates that such quantities of charcoal clear 6 915 ha of forest cover.
In separate responses to how their officers were getting kickbacks to allow illegal charcoal pass through checkpoints, the institutions whose officers were involved in the clearance of illegal charcoal movements said they were not aware of what some of their officers were up to, but promised to investigate.
Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources Nancy Tembo said she was shocked by our revelations that some officials who are trusted to stop the charcoal business are the forefront ones in front receiving bribes.
“This is sad,” she said. “We will wait for the publication of the story and an action will be taken.”
Director of Forestry Clement Chilima had a similar position: “You mean a forestry official aiding the transportation of charcoal? Really? I am shocked! How is that possible?” He adds, “I did not expect this.”
“To begin with, we have been blaming police officers to be the ones aiding the charcoal business. I have never expected that some of us, and the whole region for that matter, could be in the forefront doing the same,” he said.
Chilima said his department will act after the publication of the story. “In fact today, [Monday 25 January] we have been in a meeting trying to find ways to curb the charcoal business. So, we will wait for the story for us to act,” he said.
National Police spokesperson James Kadadzela said forestry officials are the ones who should explain.
“We just help them, but it is the duty of forestry officials who are present at the roadblock to deal with every charcoal vehicle,” said Kadadzela who refused to take follow-up questions.
MRA head of corporate affairs Steve Kapoloma said besides revenue collection, his office does agency work on behalf of MDAs.
He said when MRA intercepts restricted and prohibited goods, they refer the cases to appropriate authorities such as the Malawi Police, Ministry of Trade and Malawi Bureau of Standards.
“So, interceptions of charcoal, for example, are referred to police for necessary action,” said Kapoloma.
DRTSS spokesperson Angelina Makwecha said her office will take the bribery issue as hearsay or general perception.
“This is because ideally DRTSS’s mandate at weighbridge is to ensure general vehicle road worthiness, see to it that the vehicle has the required documentation as well as ensuring that it has adhered to loading regulations.
“Our mandate does not extend to checking whether the vehicle is carrying legal or illegal goods,” she said.
“Surprisingly, you are alleging these charcoal transporters travel all the way from Neno, Ntcheu and Mwanza where they pass through a series of roadblocks before passing Lirangwe Weighbridge Station. It is very surprising as to how these vehicles pass through a series of roadblocks, including Zalewa Roadblock without being apprehended,” said Makwecha.
This story was produced with funds from Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ).