Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) have raised eyebrows over renovations and repairing of offices underway at Capital Hill, saying the work may affect ongoing investigations into the mysterious fire that gutted Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development office wing on February 14 this year.
But police have played down the fears, insisting that officers already collected essential evidence from the affected offices.
The fire came barely a few days after findings of a commission of inquiry instituted by President Peter Mutharika recommended that fired minister of Agriculture George Chaponda be investigated by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) over his conduct in the maize importation deal from Zambia.
Finance minister Goodall Gondwe confirmed in an interview on Monday that all offices at the seat of government, including the gutted office wing, will be renovated, but he did not give details.
Spokesperson for the Ministry of Finance Alfred Kutengule said the Buildings Department in the Ministry of Transport and Public Works was better placed to give details on the office renovation project.
Spokesperson for the Buildings Department James Chakwera asked for a questionnaire and was not ready with a response as we went to press. However, executive director for Centre for Development of People (Cedep) Gift Trapence has cautioned authorities to tread carefully in the renovation exercise, particularly on the structure under police investigation, saying government risks being seen to be concealing information.
Trapence has since urged the law enforcers to speed up their investigations to avoid interferences, saying Malawians are still waiting for findings into the cause of the fire.
“The renovations at Capital Hill are a welcome development, but then government needs to ensure that the police have completed their work before that building is touched because that will raise suspicions. It is surprising that up to this day the police are not ready with a report,” said Trapence.
The Cedep boss also pointed out that the police need to admit if they have no capacity or expertise to probe the fire so that experts from outside the country should take over the investigations.
Human Rights Consultative Committee (HRCC) chairperson, Robert Mkwezalamba, agreed with Trapence that the timing of the renovations may raise suspicions.
“The Escom House that was gutted by fire in Blantyre is still not repaired, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) warehouse in Lilongwe is still not renovated, so why should government prioritise to have another structure that is under investigation because of a suspicious fire repaired.
Let the police finish their work and then the renovations can commence,” said Mkwezalamba.
However, National Police Spokesperson James Kadadzera told Nation on Sunday that the renovations will not in any way interfere with the probe, arguing that officers already visited the scene of the incident after the fire and essential evidence was collected.
“What is happening now is that our investigators are analysing the evidence. You need to understand that some fire investigations take long due to complexity of the incident, others are clear-cut. At his stage, we cannot say anything whether we suspect foul play or not as that will be pre-empting the report by the investigators,” Kadadzera said.
He refused to give a time-frame as to when the investigators will have completed the investigations.
A fire safety expert, who did not want to be named, said fire investigations vary in duration depending on availability of tools and capacity.
“But all things being equal, a fire of that magnitude could be probed in just a few weeks,” said the expert who is based in Blantyre.
Spokesperson in the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Urban Development Charles Vintula said renovations of offices at Capital Hill which he said are being funded through the budget are being in done in phases.
A week after the fire incident, the ACB pounced on the beleaguered former minister’s office at Tikwere House and his residence, where they confiscated computers and over K120 million in both local and foreign currency.
In an earlier interview, ACB deputy director Reyneck Matemba confirmed that the inspection of some of Chaponda’s assets were being investigated for his suspicious role in the controversial ‘maizegate’ saga.
The Tikwere House fire was not the first of its kind as in 2004, when the late Chakufwa Chihana was minister of Agriculture, the building was also destroyed by fire following suspicions that coupons meant for the poor had been abused.
The accounts department was the hardest hit.