Two errant principals secretaries (PSs) must not face jail but be removed from office over contempt of court, the High Court hearing the Tractorgate scandal ruled in Lilongwe yesterday.
High Court judge Charles Mkandawire ordered that the two—Principal Secretary for Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development Gray Nyandule Phiri and Secretary to Treasury Cliff Chiunda, whom he found guilty of contempt of court, will get a suspended nine month sentence for disregarding earlier court rulings on the matter.
The court suspended the custodial sentence for 24 months on condition that the two officials should not be involved in disobedience of any court orders again.
There was relief for the PSs, their families and sympathisers, who included Minister of Finance Joseph Mwanamveka and the ministry’s spokesperson Davis Sado who left the business of managing the country’s economy to witness the fate of the two in court.
In his ruling, which lasted one and a half hours, Justice Mkandawire dwelled at length on constitutional violations which he described as serious in nature and asked President Peter Mutharika to fire the two senior government officials from their positions.
Mkandawire argued that one of the grounds for removal is serious violation of the Constitution “and this is what the officers have done,” adding, “if this can lead to removal of the President
why not such officials? I, therefore, recommend that the President should look into this case.”
Added Justice Mkandawire: “The two respondents have breached the fundamental principle of the Constitution. They have lost their moral compass to hold such high offices. The office of the Principal Secretary is very important in the governance system of this country. We have been in a constitutional democracy for 26 years and it’s high time we got serious with constitutional supremacy.”
The judge further argued that the two officials had demonstrated sheer arrogance and propensity when handling the case and said the court had observed that the two were likely acting in tacit with the Attorney General which he described as dangerous for the Constitution.
He further said their decision to apologise after disregarding the Supreme Court ruling was deceptive and a mockery to the court.
After the scathing ruling, Phiri and Chiunda immediately conferred with their lawyers and agreed to appeal the decision. However, a sense of relief was palpable on their faces upon escaping jail time.
Lawyer for the two PSs, Chancy Gondwe, confirmed in an interview that his clients would immediately appeal both the sentence and conviction but expressed relief for suspension of the sentence.
“Basically that’s what we asked the court to do during mitigation last time, we asked the court to suspend whatever sentence they are going to make or impose on the co-respondents. So the court has suspended the sentence, that’s okay but still we are not happy with some pronouncements in the judgement in terms of sentencing and we shall be appealing against those elements. We are also against the conviction which was made last time and we are also going to appeal against that,” he said.
Gondwe further argued that the court’s order for Mutharika to fire the PSs was “just a recommendation not an order.”
“It’s up to the President to look at the recommendation as to whether the recommendation is proper, legal and constitutional, so all those issues will be looked at after we get the ruling itself and we are appealing today [Friday] against the conviction of the sentence,” he added.
Speaking on behalf of the Ombudsman Martha Chizuma, who was not in court, the office’s public relations officer Arthur Semba welcomed the sentencing but said they need to sit down with the Ombudsman to analyse the ruling.
“We are only an agent of the law and we only come here to seek what has been given here and that is what we call justice. Justice is observing the Constitution, the laws of Malawi which are there to protect Malawians. The honourable judge has given the sentence and we can live with that,” said Semba.
Tractorgate is the name of a public scandal in which the government of Malawi obtained a $50 million (about K37 billion) loan from an Indian bank to procure tractors for rural farmers the equipment ended up being sold cheaply to politicians and senior government officials.
A recent audit report has further shed more light on what happened to Tractorgate funds. It discovered that some K143 million of the funds remaining from the controversial loan cannot be traced in any bank.—Additional reporting by Faith Kaunde, Staff writer.