The Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) yesterday cracked its whip on embattled Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development George Chaponda and senior managers of the State produce trader Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (Admarc).
ACB conducted a search and seizure exercise at the offices of Chaponda in Lilongwe and also his residence where they seized cash, in both local and foreign currencies, amounting to an accumulated figure of over K200 million, according to Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) and ACB sources.
But The Nation sources both at ACB and RBM—where the confiscated money have been taken for counting and safe keeping confirmed that some money in excess of K160 million was indeed seized from Chaponda’s house.
The RBM source candidly affirmed the amount ACB brought before the bank was K124 million and $57 500 (K42 million) with some rands and pulas. But The Nation could not independently confirm the figures.
In Blantyre, the graft-busting body pounced on the offices and residences of some Admarc executives, including chief executive officer Foster Mulumbe and director of operations Feckson Kantonga where they confiscated several files and computers.
They also stormed offices of Transglobe Produce Export Limited, a locally registered company and farm produce trader in Limbe where they seized similar items.
ACB investigators conducted the operation as part of their investigations into the dubious maize procurement deal by Admarc from neighbouring Zambia.
The Nation crew that camped at Admarc and Transglobe offices in Limbe for more than two hours witnessed the seizure of the files and a computer from Kantonga’s offices.
Thereafter, four ACB investigators accompanied by an armed camouflaged police officer, using a white Mitsubishi Pajero registration MG 169 AA, together with Kantonga who was driving a white KIA Sorento registration BS 278, cruised to his residence to proceed with the exercise.
The Nation crew pursued the party to Kantonga’s house in new Limbe West residential area (near Angelo Goveya) but was denied entry into the compound where the early-afternoon assignment lasted for about 39 minutes.
In Lilongwe, The Nation witnessed the confiscation of documents at Chaponda’s office in Tikwere building.
However, the operation was so secretive that even women selling bananas at the entrance and a handful of people loitering around offices could hardly notice the presence of the four ACB investigators at the premises.
It was even so inconspicuous among Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development employees tasked to transfer the files into the ministry’s coaster registration MG 928 AF that they had no idea that they were transferring items into the custody of ACB investigators.
At Chaponda’s house in Area 10, the presence of ACB and fiscal police officers drew the attention of onlookers.
One witness told The Nation that fiscal police and ACB officials searched the house room by room.
ACB sources that were part of the search team at the residence disclosed that they found K124 million, $58 000 and other currencies such as pulas.
ACB deputy director general Reyneck Matemba confirmed the amounts in an interview last evening, saying the figures were already in the public domain.
“And as ACB, we are not saying that the figures are connected to the maize issue, no. It will be too premature to say so. Our investigations are still underway,” he said.
Matemba also bemoaned the behaviour of some RBM officers who he said were taking pictures and video clips of ACB officers as they were depositing the money and posting the same on social media.
He said this was unethical and it put the lives of the ACB officers in danger.
ACB spokesperson Egrita Ndala confirmed that the bureau launched a search and seize operation on the people that were named in the maize saga but could not divulge more information, saying at the time The Nation was talking to her, the operation was still underway.
Commenting on the ACB exercise, Chancellor College political scientist Boniface Dulani said while he gave the ACB the benefit of the doubt until no progress on the investigations is seen, it was essential to accept that ACB has finally started using its teeth to bite.
“A lot of us have been calling for an ACB that is impartial and I think we shouldn’t rush to dismiss them now when they are demonstrating that level of impartiality,” he said.
However, Dulani urged Malawians to remain vigilant as there have been several cases whose investigations have commenced, but stalled underway before dying a natural death.
“I hope this investigation will also not suffer a similar fate. But as a country, we must not just be content that the ACB raided Chaponda’s residence rather we should be following up and ensuring the investigations are concluded and action is taken if any evidence that the concerned individuals did something wrong,” he stated.
The political scientist also observed that with the current public pressure on the issue, the best Chaponda could have done was to resign to remove any doubt about the integrity of the investigations.
Said Dulani: “For him to step aside, it’s not an admission of guilt but rather to actually tell the public that he has nothing to hide and that he should be fully investigated without anyone doubting the honesty of the probe.”
He also faulted President Mutharika for remaining silent on the matter, arguing the development was reflecting badly on his leadership as well as his priorities.
“Much as we are saying Honourable Chaponda should have done the honourable thing and resigned, I think the President should have forced him to resign or could have sacked him from Cabinet. Otherwise this is really reflecting badly on him and also gives an impression that Chaponda is a sacred cow.
“But the law says no one is above the law so Chaponda, like any other Malawian, is not immune from being investigated and questioned and we don’t expect Mutharika to order the ACB to arrest him but what the President has under his control is sack his Cabinet minister,” Dulani said.
On his part, Edge Kanyongolo, a law lecturer at Chancellor College, said much as he did not have specific details about the case, under the Corrupt Practices Act, the bureau has wide powers of investigations that include conducting searches and interrogating suspects.
“But I cannot comment about this specific case because I don’t know the facts pertaining to the search and seizure, I don’t know how they conducted the raid, so I would need that information before I could say whether the ACB were within their powers or not,” said Kanyongolo.
Human rights lawyer Chrispin Sibande also said there was no problem for the ACB to carry out the exercise because it had proper authority within the law.
“There was no problem, the law provides that the director of ACB can demand the production of certain documents at the same time the law allows ACB to obtain court orders when conducting investigations,” he said.
However, Sibande said “we expect the ACB to question the suspects on the confiscated items because the law provides that and they should be given the right to be heard.”
Professor of law at Cape Town University, South Africa, Danwood Chirwa said since allegations against Chaponda first appeared, the ACB has played a peripheral role to the government’s cover up exercise, the presidential commission and parliament’s inquiry until now.
He said the ACB’s raiding of the minister’s residence is an ideal indication that the ACB was undertaking its own investigations while the commission and inquiry were going on, both of which the ACB must have followed very closely.
“It also means that the ACB has uncovered more information than was revealed in the two inquiries. Lastly, and perhaps more significantly, it means that the political fetters on its powers to investigate the Minister have now been lifted. It remains to be seen however how long such autonomy will last,” he observed.
But ACB director general Lucas Kondowe said his office was a constitutional body that operates independently and that the ‘search and seize’ operation was independently sanctioned by his office.
“We do not discuss these operations with anyone and ACB is an independent body,” Kondowe said.
Two commissions, one set up by the President and the other by Parliament presented reports that called for further investigations to be carried out on Chaponda, Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Principal Secretary Erica Maganga, Admarc CEO and others.
Commenting on the money found at Chaponda’s premises, Blantyre-based financial expert Jai Banda said there is no law that stipulates the maximum amount of money a person can keep on him.
He, however, said authorities can use the Corrupt Practices Act if a person who is keeping large amounts of money fails to explain how he got it.
Banda also said there is no crime in keeping foreign currency provided a person has obtained it from a legal dealer.