Having covered the trial of former Justice Minister Raphael Kasambara from day one, GOLDEN MATONGA shares the thrills and intrigues of the historic case.
There is a three-year old picture in which I am straining my neck to peep into a police vehicle carrying former attorney general and minister of Justice Raphael Kasambara. My miserable facial expression begs for sympathy.
Kasambara (in dark suit) heads for the court while handcuffed with a prison warder
The photograph was taken in 2013, the first day Kasambara appeared at the Lilongwe Magistrate’s Court in relation to the attempted murder of former Ministry of Finance budget director Paul Mphwiyo.
The historic picture, however, falls to the whole story. Kasambara looks down, half-smiling and half-sombre—defiant and confident of another victory in the legal arena where he was almost invincible.
“I doubt this case will go down to trial,” the senior counsel (SC) told me that day.
At the court, in keeping with a dramatic spirit that carried on throughout the gripping three-year trial, Kasambara named the then president Joyce Banda as one of his witnesses.
This drama never came to pass, but the trial was never short of intrigues.
Throughout the trial, Kasambara never dropped the defiance of day one. Even on the day he was sentenced to 13 years in jail, he still argued with prison warders and police officers not to handcuff him like a rogue. He denounced the verdict by Justice Michael Mtambo as a sham, saying: “We shall overcome!”
It all started on September 13 2013 when gunmen lurked in the dark outside Mphwiyo’s mansion in Lilongwe’s affluent Area 43.
Mphwiyo’s name would forever be associated with infamy starting as a victim of a serious crime, a purported hero of an anti-corruption crusade, before the public learnt he was being suspected of being a victim of his own greed, a conspirator in the largest corruption scandal that deprived the country of some K24 billion.
If Mphwiyo’s attempted murder was shocking Hollywood material, the sheer scale of the theft of public money at Capital Hill was equally unbelievable.
In the first few days after the shooting, the media told us: “Malawi needs the likes of Mphwiyo.”
Banda heavily rendered credence when she told Malawians at Lunzu in Blantyre that she knew the ill motives of the ruffians behind the attempted assassination of the anti-corruption crusader. She never mentioned them, but later claimed she was misquoted.
She fired Kasambara from her Cabinet, alongside the then minister of Finance Ken Lipenga as Malawians and donors bayed for the blood of the thieving fat-cats.
On November 8 2013, Kasambara was arrested alongside his bodyguard and business associates Pika Manondo and his brother Dauka as well as ex-soldier MacDonald Kumwembe. Dauka was acquitted while the others were later tried for attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder.
For the next three years, I would get to know the suspects a bit more as would much of the public. I developed mutual acquaintanceship with them, particularly Manondo, as well as the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Bruno Kalemba.
They proved reliable sources.
However, attempts to develop similar bonds with Mary Kachale, Kalemba’s slender ‘iron lady’, conservative, media-shy successor proved futile. Only once did Kachale ever pick a phone to call me—and she wanted to congratulate my workmate for winning an award.
My professional courtship with Kachale proved futile as visits to her office were restricted and she religiously refused to give interviews, always demanding questionnaires and forwarding them to the ministry’s spokesperson Apoche Itimu.
While that failed to endear her to many journalists, sustained success of the Cashgate cases has turned her into a sort of celebrity.
With the extrovert Manondo, who narrated his love of nightlife to Justice Mtambo during the trial, we met at court premises, in bars, at the office, on car parks, everywhere, night or day. I got some scoops and some good gossip.
Though we became close, it was never a cozy relationship as often Manondo and co-accused persons would snap at what they perceived as biased reporting not only by me, but by my newspaper, especially after I moved from Times Group to Nation Publications Limited (NPL).
Yet the biggest and oddest moment came before I crossed the street.
At Lilongwe court premises, fellow journalists told me that he was fuming. Apparently, Kasambara was angry that my front-page story, sourced from the DPP’s office, had linked Cashgate to the attempted murder of Mphwiyo.
To everyone’s surprise, a different Kasambara was waiting for me. This was not the same top-notch lawyer many had seen and was asking for my whereabouts just a few minutes before.
He was calm and collected. Instead of confronting and humiliating me, he granted us an interview where he, alongside Manondo, turned the heat not against the State prosecutors and investigators, but against Banda.
Granting an interview while awaiting a hearing in courtroom was unusual, but Kasambara’s trial was never short of theatrics.
I was sitting outside the tiny packed courtroom, peeping through a window and struggling to record him from my precarious position, when he grabbed my phone, placed it in his hands and answered each question I had to ask.
Throughout, he maintained his innocence and kept blaming his former Cabinet colleagues for turning him into a sacrificial lamb.
“There is a Zomba mafia,” he stated. “It’s responsible for whatever happened”.
“Zomba mafia” was a term originally associated with a cartel led by fallen political tycoon Dumbo Lemani in the 1990s and early 2000s.But now Banda was president, and it had become a handy hint at the brains behind the Cashgate.
Kasambara added angrily: “The Zomba mafia plotted how to loot the State, allocated certain people positions in government to facilitate the looting and so on. It’s not the ruling People’s Party [PP] as a whole that planned this thing.”
He accused Banda of shielding Oswald Lutepo while sacrificing him.
A year later, Banda lost the presidency to the incumbent Peter Mutharika who promptly replaced Kalemba with Kachale.
In any case, the theatrics continued. He first won the fight to force out Judge Esmie Chombo, saying the judge was being pressured by the State to convict him.
Four times, Kasambara tried in vain to force out Justice Mtambo, accusing him of holding bias and grudges.
He also threw several intimidating slurs towards Kachale, saying: “If it were not a courtroom, I would have slapped you.” He called her stupid before asking the judge for a short break to calm down because he had lost his cool.
This angered Mtambo who noted in his sentencing that Kasambara’s actions fell short of actions expected of an SC.
During mitigation, when Kasambara’s lawyer Modecai Msisha told the court that Kasambara was remorseful for his actions, Mtambo disapproved candidly.
Mtambo said the former minister showed no remorse, apology or regret.
It has been a marathon three years already since that day that picture of me chasing for a sound bite was taken at High Court. But the sentence, bemoaned by some sections of the legal fraternity as excessive and disproportionate, appears to be just an interval and not the end in this soap opera. Kasambara already pledged to appeal at the Supreme Court.