Minister of Energy Newton Kambala and two others spent last night in police cells following their arrests for alleged attempts to influence the award of fuel supply imports at National Oil Company of Malawi (Nocma).
The Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) arrested Kambala, President Lazarus Chakwera’s adviser on strategy Chris Chaima Banda and Alliance for Democracy (Aford) president Enock Chinana after conclusion of an investigation into the contracts award process.
In a statement signed by ACB principal public relations officer Egrita Ndala yesterday, the graft-busting body said Kambala allegedly attempted to influence State-owned Nocma to award contracts for 2020/21 fuel supply to Orxy, Finergy and Trifugira Fuel companies.
On the other hand, Chihana and Chaima Banda allegedly aided and abetted the minister when he attempted to influence the award of the contract to supply 40 000 metric tons of fuel to a company known as Finergy.
Reads the statement in part: “On 9th August 2021, the ACB arrested Hon. Newton Kambala, Mr. Chris Chaima Banda and Mr. Enock Chihana.”
The bureau said it received two complaints on the fuel import deals. It said in the first complaint, the allegation was that Nocma there was corruption in the way Nocma conducted the process to award contracts to supply fuel while the second complaint related to alleged interference and meddling into Nocma’s contracts to supply fuel for 2020/21.
“The Anti-Corruption Bureau instituted investigations and restricted the contract. On 6th August, 2021, the bureau lifted the restriction as the investigation in the first complaint did not establish any offence,” added the statement.
After the ACB director general Martha Chizuma and other officials had concluded addressing a news conference around midday at Golden Peacock Hotel in Lilongwe yesterday the arrests started with Kambala.
“Criminal proceedings will be commenced,” Chizuma had told journalists minutes before her team executed warrants of arrest obtained from the Lilongwe Magistrate’s Court.
Kambala has become the second serving Cabinet minister to be arrested for alleged corruption after Yusuf Mwawa during the first term of former president Bingu wa Mutharika.
On the other hand, Chaima Banda is a second Chakwera aide to be arrested after special adviser on special duties Pastor Martin Thom who was picked in connection with attempted “smuggling” of a Loan Authorisation Bill to Parliament.
The trio was earlier named in a complaint to ACB by Nocma acting chief executive officer Hellen Buluma as allegedly attempting to influence the awarding of procurement contracts.
State House director of communications Sean Kampondeni, who is also the President’s executive assistant, said Chakwera will review the matter and decide whether to fire Kambala from Cabinet.
“The ACB is doing own investigation and the President is separately doing his own inquiry into the matter and based on his own findings he will make his decision. The President is not collaborating with ACB,” he said.
UTM Party spokesperson Frank Mwenifumbo said the party would not immediately comment on the arrest of Kambala, a senior party member.
On the other hand, civil society groups and governance watchdogs yesterday welcomed the arrests and urged expediency in their prosecution.
Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) chairperson Gift Trapence said the arrests show commitment to fight against corruption regardless of the rank or status of those involved.
He said: “This is what Malawians have been looking for to an era where there will not be sacred cows. An era where ACB will not shield or favour anyone based on political lines whenever someone is suspected of corruption.
“We applaud the new director for the leadership she has shown by making sure that everyone is accountable regarding less their status.”
But Trapence cautioned that mere arrests without proper trial are counterproductive and called for expedited prosecutions, saying ACB “should go beyond just arresting people but rather to gather clear evidence that can make them win cases in court”.
Centre for Social Accountability and Transparency executive director Willy Kamwandira also welcomed the arrests, saying they demonstrate no one is above the law.
“This is the kind of responsiveness Malawians have been anticipating from oversight institutions. The Constitution is very clear that no one is above the law. What has happened will help preserve the integrity that should come up with such high ranking public positions,” he said.
Earlier, Chizuma outlined a timeline of its investigation into the Nocma fuel deals. She said the process started in August 2020 and 35 firms bought the bidding document.
In November 2021, allegations of political interference were made against Kambala, according to Chizuma who said when Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera) intervened two more firms—Dalbit and Camel Oil—were added.
Initially, she said, Nocma had shortlisted four firms—Lake Oil Tanzania, Camel Oil, Dalbit and Independent Petroleum Group (IPG). She added that later Nocma settled for Lake Oil and IPG.
“During vetting by PPDA [Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets Authority-PPDA] and ACB, IPG was dropped on the issue of premiums remaining with three firms which Nocma intended to award contract as per their notice which they released on 1st June 2021,” said Chizuma.
She said going through the processes as undertaken by Nocma in the procurement “we [ACB] could not detect any corrupt practices”; hence, the decision on Friday to cancel an earlier restriction order.
Chizuma said the Nocma fuel imports probe also revealed some issues on which the bureau has sought guidance from the Solicitor General and Principal Secretary for Ministry of Justice Reyneck Matemba to opine on the legality of some of the actions by Nocma.
She said the ACB believes it has “sufficient evidence to proceed with prosecution”.
Nocma imports 50 percent of the country’s annual fuel requirements with the other half sourced by Petroleum Importers Limited, a consortium of private oil marketing firms.