While the source of the 203 road vehicles former president Joyce Banda imported—the bulk of which were duty free—remains misty, The Nation investigations show she spent a minimum of K436 million to buy the fleet.
A dossier with all particulars of the vehicles we have seen shows that Banda imported 121 motor cycles—all of them Lifan LF 125 type—and 82 different kinds of cars.
The bulk of these purchases were made when she was President between April 2012 and June 2014. Out of the total vehicles bought, it is only 12 that she purchased before becoming President—with three acquired while Cabinet minister in 2004, 2007 and 2008; nine as Vice President between 2009 and 2011.
And for all these vehicles and motorcycles, the address of the owner is the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC).
The Nation conducted an Internet research to find out prices of each motor car as well as motorcycle and, according to our calculations, Banda spent a minimum of K436 million to import the machines.
The prices were found in three currencies—US dollar, British pound sterling and South African rand.
However, the quoted prices may not be the exact ones she used as ours were obtained after searching each model of the 82 cars and 121 motorcycles and how much Japanese and other international exporters are selling them currently.
Our calculations were also based on the cheapest price (minimum) of each car model and motor cycle. The issue of year of make was also considered in the research.
According to the Constitution, sitting presidents are entitled to import duty-free motor vehicles for personal use.
The law, however, does not specify how many can be imported, a development legal and political commentators say has led to abuse by sitting presidents.
However, during her 26-month presidency, at a monthly remuneration of K1.5 million, Banda accumulated just about K40 million.
Additionally, the most known preoccupation for the former Head of State has been her Joyce Banda Foundation International (JBFI), which is mostly involved in charity work, not profit.
The cash splash on vehicles came during a period Banda had refused to declare her assets as the law stipulates after taking over power in April 2012, a development that has made it difficult for taxpayers to examine how much she was worth upon taking office and how rich she was on leaving State House.
In justifying her decision not to declare her assets as President, Banda argued that she already did so in 2009 when she was Vice-President.
This was despite the fact that the contents of her declared assets, as well as Mutharika’s, were never made public.
But some legal minds have called for the need to amend the Presidents (Salaries and Benefits) Act, which gives the President the privilege to import vehicles duty free without any limit to ensure that they do not abuse their powers.
In an interview on Friday, associate professor of law Edge Kanyongolo of the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College said there is need for presidents to have limits on duty-free items to stop them from continued abuse of the status.
“There should be a limit as to how much items can be imported duty free by presidents, otherwise the provision is open to abuse,” argued Kanyongolo.
In an earlier interview with our sister paper, Weekend Nation, Kanyongolo also noted that there is need for public officers to declare their assets when leaving office after serving their terms of office, retiring or resigning.
He also said the law should empower the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU), Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) and Parliament to audit the wealth of presidents, vice-presidents and other elected leaders from time to time and update taxpayers who can gauge if leaders are using their positions to enrich themselves.
Private practice lawyer Justin Dzonzi, in a separate interview last Friday, concurred with Kanyongolo, saying it is not a secret that the provision is open to abuse and has been abused not once, but several times.
Dzonzi cited the court case involving former president the late Bingu wa Mutharika’s estate, where then High Court judge now at the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal, Dunstain Mwaungulu, made a similar observation and pointed out that as things are, the provision may lead to gross abuse by presidents.
“Past presidents have been abusing the provision by importing so many duty-free vehicles for their political party use. There is need for the law to put an upper limit on how much duty free items a president is allowed to import in terms of clothing, vehicles and other merchandise and the limit should be reasonable enough,” observed Dzonzi.
According to records, all the Lifan LF brand motorcycles and motor vehicles have registration series of JB, NB, BR, BQ, BS, BA and ZA. All the motor cycles were registered on the same day—March 22 2014.
Some of the vehicles, according to the list we have seen, include 14 Toyota Noah vehicles, 11 Nissan Caravan, four Toyota Land Cruisers, 11 Nissan Atlases, nine GWM Seeds and three Toyota Voxys.
Others are three Subaru Foresters, three Toyota Hilux, two Nissan NP200s, Mitsubishi Pajero Turbo, two Isuzu ELFs, two Leyland Ashooks, Tata LPC, Toyota Rav4, Toyota Coaster, Toyota Prado, Kia CDV, Leyland ERF, Mercedes Benz, Ford Everest, Toyota Dyna, Isuzu CL, Nissan CV, Mazda Titan, among others.
According to the documents, while Banda is the owner of the cars and the motorcycles the title holder is the Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) for most of the machines. It is only in roughly 16 vehicles where she is registered as both the owner and title holder.
MRA’s interest in the vehicles is noted in case the former president decides to sell the machines whose duty-free status is granted on condition that they are for personal use not resale or other people’s usage, which would attract duty.
Already there are questions as to how much government may have forgone in taxes through the duty free importation. MRA has declined to state, including whether Banda paid any duty for any of the listed vehicles.
MRA spokesperson Steve Kapoloma was quoted in the media recently as saying the issue of whether Banda paid tax or not was privileged information regarding a taxpayer and cannot be put in the public domain unless the matter was brought before the court.
But whether she paid duty or not, mystery still surrounds how she amassed the hundreds of millions just for the importation of the cars and motorcycles, mostly within two years.
When contacted yesterday to explain where the former president got the money to buy the cars and motorcycles, Banda’s spokesperson Andekuche Chanthunya referred the matter to People’s Party (PP), claiming the vehicles belong to the party.
“What I know is that the said items belong to the party and I don’t speak on behalf of the party. So, talk to Ken Msonda if you want to know the source of the money,” said Chanthunya.
But when put to him that documents The Nation has seen indicate that the vehicles and motorbikes were all registered in the name of the former president and not PP, Chanthunya expressed surprise.
“As I said, what I know is that they belong to the party. But if you say they are registered in Dr Joyce Banda’s name, I know nothing, so give me time to consult first and I will come back to you,” he said. He did not by press time.
Early last year, MRA pounced on Mutharika’s estate demanding custom duty on his 41 personal vehicles, which he bought duty-free while in power.
According to court documents, MRA indicated that with the demise of Mutharika, the law empowers the authority, as the title holder to the motor vehicles, to get possession of the vehicles to ensure that duty is duly paid before any further use by and any third person not entitled to the privilege that the law accorded to the late Head of State.
However, the High Court in Blantyre quashed decisions and actions of MRA to seize the vehicles, describing the move as unfair and unreasonable.
The court added that the laws were silent on what happens to goods bought duty-free for the President’s use in case of death.