The Fiscal and Fraud Section of Malawi Police Service is steadily probing the importation of K5 billion duty-free cement from Zambia and Zimbabwe that was done in the name of the former president Peter Mutharika.
The development comes a day after Mutharika distanced himself from the saga.
While disclosing in an interview yesterday that more people were being interviewed on the matter, national police spokesperson James Kadadzera declined to confirm whether Mutharika was among those earmarked to be summoned.
In a dramatic turn of events on Friday, Mutharika, ousted from power through the June 23 fresh presidential election, issued his first statement since he left office, distancing himself from the importation of the cement using his duty-free status.
But this is in sharp contrast to what Mutharika, through his spokesperson then Mgeme Kalilani, told the nation when he was in power that he was within the law as the goods imported were for personal use.
Kadadzera, however, yesterday refused to comment on Mutharika’s latest position and whether the police were interested in having him explain his side, saying disclosing such information would jeopardise their investigation.
“What we can say is that we’re still interviewing more people we know are connected to this, but we cannot disclose names of people we’ve on the list. Be assured Fiscal Police is dealing with the matter,” Kadadzera said.
Law expert and activist Justin Dzonzi said in an interview yesterday that Mutharika’s public denial of his involvement is nothing if there is contrary evidence.
“Most likely he’ll have to explain what he knows. Police will also deal with the matter depending on what they have as evidence and what they’re getting from people they’re interviewing. Most likely police would be interested to hear from him,” Dzonzi said.
A political analyst at University of Malawi’s Chancellor College, Mustafa Hussein, said in an interview yesterday that Mutharika’s latest statement on the matter places him in bad light.
“It’s very difficult for Malawians to believe him now when just in June, he defended the importation when he stated it was for personal use. The presidential spokesperson plays an important role and they consult the President before issuance of any statement.
“In a delicate matter like this one, one would be naïve to issue such a statement without consulting the President. Presidential spokespersons get information from the President to the public and actually when the spokespersons speak; it’s the word of the President And at that highest office in Malawi, the President is expected to endorse statements issued,” Hussein said.
The political analyst said it was for this reason that Malawians would have difficulties to digest the issue, which he said the two contradictory statements have raised a controversy.
He said Malawians would have understood him if he distanced himself from the cement deal immediately the statement was issued and when he was still in power.
“This is a complex issue. I’d expect the former leader to come out more clearly, otherwise he would appear as if he’s running away from the issue under investigation,” he said.
Human Rights Defenders Coalition chairperson Gift Trapence said in an interview yesterday that Mutharika’s statement does not in any way exonerate him from the allegations.
“I’m sure authorities would give him an opportunity to explain his role in the matter. There is no way they cannot have him to explain. That public statement distancing himself from the matter is not enough to clear his name,” Trapence said.
Police in Lilongwe on July 14 arrested Mutharika’s top bodyguard Norman Chisale and charged him with fraud and money laundering in relation to the imported cement.
He spent three nights in custody and was granted court bail, but the law enforcers rearrested him on another charge of attempted murder of a woman he claims he accidentally shot in Chimwankhunda Township in Blantyre.
The law enforcers brought Chisale to Blantyre and his lawyer Chancy Gondwe applied for bail, and the court is expected to deliver the bail ruling tomorrow.
Earlier on July 10, police arrested MRA’s former deputy commissioner Roza Mbilizi in connection with the same cement deal. She is on court bail.
The law enforcers in Lilongwe also arrested businessperson Shaffe Ahmed Chunara, owner of Prestige Imports and Exports, in connection with the importation of the same cement.
The businessperson spent two nights in custody and was granted bail after he was charged with fraud and money laundering.
Mutharika’s personal secretary Linda Salanjira issued the statement Friday in which he seems to suggest being a victim of identity fraud in the scandal in which his personal bodyguard, Chisale, was arrested for.
“The former president neither bought nor instructed anyone to buy or import the cement in question…further, the former president was never at any point undertaking construction project(s) requiring such substantial volumes of cement,” reads the statement in part.
Mutharika imported about tonnes of cement worth K5 billion duty-free from Zambia and Zimbabwe between 2018 and 2019 despite promoting Buy Malawian Campaign and the local industry having production capacity.
State House few weeks to the fresh presidential election had justified the transaction as “within the law”, but private practice lawyer John-Gift Mwakhwawa had said the volume involved raised doubts on the “personal use” provision in the Presidents (Salaries and Benefits) Act and had called for an investigation.
Written correspondence between State Residences and Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) indicated that through director general of State Residences Peter Mukhito, Mutharika asked the public tax collector to facilitate clearance of the cement duty-free.
In a letter responding to the State Residences request dated November 28 2018, MRA deputy commissioner of technical customs and excise Abigail Kamwamba approved the transaction and advised that the cement should be allowed into the country from previously Lilongwe Port to Dedza and Mchinji.
Reads the letter in part: “We write to acknowledge receipt of the letter dated 21st November 2018 requesting duty-free clearance of the above mentioned goods.
“We write to convey the Commissioner General’s approval to clear 20 000 MT cement from Zimbabwe duty-free in terms of Customs Procedures Code 418 of the Customs and Exercise (Tariffs) Order.”
MRA’s head of corporate affairs Steve Kapoloma had told us that time that MRA was obliged to respect taxpayer’s right to confidentiality by not disclosing individual tax affairs to third parties or the public.
“Without commenting on this specific issue, kindly take note that under Customs Procedure Code 418 of the Customs and Excise Tariff, the President is allowed to import goods duty-free,” he has said.