Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has launched a fresh inquiry into the controversial disposal of farm equipment, including tractors, bought using a $50 million (about K37 billion) loan from India in 2011.
The committee will roll out the inquiry tomorrow with Ombudsman Martha Chizuma as its first interviewee.
In an interview yesterday, committee chairperson Ken Kandodo confirmed that they will conduct the inquiry to understand what led to the disposal of the tractors and farm equipment meant to facilitate mechanisation of agriculture.
“We are indeed starting investigations this coming Tuesday. We would like to know how the tractors were sold to politicians, civil servants and the private sector and where did that money go.
“We understand that the court already gave its judgement on the procurement process and maladministration, but our inquiry is based on the selling of the tractors,” he said.
Besides the Ombudsman, the committee is also expected to engage other relevant stakeholders, including representatives of the Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development and Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water development.
The farm equipment purchased using the line of credit from Export-Import Bank of India to mechanise agriculture in the country included 177 tractors and 144 maize shellers.
The tractors were meant for distribution to agriculture development divisions (ADDs) to enable smallholder farmers graduate to mechanisation by hiring the equipment. However, only 77 of the tractors were distributed to ADDs with 100 sold.
PAC’s inquiry comes against a background of a High Court case where two principal secretaries (for Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development; and Finance, Economic Planning and Development) were convicted for contempt of court after they purportedly ignored a court order to issue a public apology to Malawians for alleged maladministration and flawed disposal of the equipment.
However, the High Court later set aside the earlier conviction to hear the two principal secretaries’ side of the story.
The case followed a 48-page investigation report titled The Present Toiling, The Future Overburdened by the Ombudsman after a smallholder farmer in Rumphi and former Dedza East legislator Juliana Lunguzi lodged complaints about the sale of farm equipment dubbed Tractorgate.
In an interview yesterday, Chizuma confirmed being summoned to the inquiry and said her office is ready to provide the necessary information needed.
She said: “We are aware of the meeting and my office will be fully represented. Since I am out of the country, I have made a video presentation for the members [of the committee] and I am hopeful that through this intervention by Parliament, the other directives of our report will be fully complied.”
The court ordered the officers to publish the apology for 21 consecutive days in the country’s two daily newspapers and for another 21 days during prime time on one public and a private radio broadcaster (both radio and television).
Reacting to Parliament’s move to undertake a fresh inquiry, Human Rights Defenders Coalition chairperson Timothy Mtambo said it was welcome, but urged the legislators to handle the exercise professionally.
He said public officers found in the wrong should face the consequences of their actions.
On his part, Ernest Thindwa, a political analyst based at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, cast doubt that the inquiry will have a logical conclusion looking at how politicians have set precedent in the country.
He said: “This is in principle an important development, but I doubt if the case will reach its logical conclusion. Our society has lost its moral fabric and politicians have been the key drivers and lubricants of the moral decay.
“Serving in that committee is not so much about serving national interest, but promoting one’s own political interests within political parties which have increasingly become instruments for securing political authority necessary for advancing self-interests.”
In their apology, the ministries indicated that the tractors were archaic in terms of technical aspects; hence, their disposal which largely benefitted government officials and politically-connected individuals.
But the manufacturer, Sonalika International of India in August this year disputed government’s assertion and instead stressed that the tractors were “manufactured using the latest and best engineering technology available at the time”. The manufacturer added that the supplied tractors were suitable for operation in Malawi.