ice-President Saulos Chilima has emerged as the biggest casualty of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) report on businessperson Zuneth Sattar’s dealings as President Lazarus Chakwera has withheld his delegated functions pending investigations.
In a national address themed ‘Matter of National Importance’ delivered from Kamuzu Palace in Lilongwe last evening, the President also fired Police Inspector General George Kainja and suspended State Residences chief of staff Prince Kapondamgaga as well as Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets (PPDA) board chairperson John Suzi-Banda for their alleged involvement in the Sattar alleged corrupt dealings.
On the Vice-President, who is among 53 public officers named in the report, Chakwera said: “As for the Vice-President, his office is unique in that the Constitution does not provide for his suspension or removal from it by the President because he holds that office by the will of Malawian voters, which I respect.
“As such, the best I can do for now, which is what I have decided to do, is to withhold from his office any delegated duties while waiting for the bureau to substantiate its allegations against him and to make known its course of action in relation to such.”
In a brief response last evening, Chilima’s press aide Pilirani Phiri said: “The Vice-President will speak or comment on the matter at an opportune time.”
Malawi Law Society (MLS) president Patrick Mpaka and legal scholar Danwood Chirwa have described the President’s decision on his Vice-President as the safest route in the circumstances.
Chirwa, a professor of law at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, said in an interview there were two possible options in view of the findings of the report. He said first was for the Vice-President to voluntarily resign to pave the way for investigations or what the President has done.
He said: “Ideally, the Vice-President has been suspended. It is a delegated office and when the President says he has withheld delegation of functions, what he is saying is that he has technically suspended the Vice-President. That is the only safest option as far as the law is concerned.”
But Chirwa said Parliament was at liberty to initiate impeachment procedures if there are sufficient grounds to do so without waiting for conclusion of the legal process.
He said: “It is true that all those named in the report must be presumed innocent until proven guilty, but that doesn’t stop Parliament from taking its own action.”
Mpaka, on the other hand, said while the President has no powers to suspend his second in command, his decision serves to safeguard the integrity of the Presidency.
He said what is important now is for law enforcement agencies to act with speed in handling the cases.
The President’s address came at the expiry of 21 days he gave ACB to submit the report in relation to its investigations of United Kingdom-based Sattar whose companies have multi-billion kwacha contracts with government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs).
In his address, Chakwera said the bureau found that between 2017 and 2021, Malawi Police Service and the Malawi Defence Force awarded 16 contracts worth $150 million to five companies of Sattar.
He faulted the country’s procurement laws as one of the drivers of corruption for allowing contracts to be awarded to companies without regard to beneficial ownership of those firms.
The President said besides the four he has taken action on, the report showed that in the eight months between March and October 2021, 53 public officers and former public officers allegedly received bribes from Sattar. He said the alleged beneficiaries are from various MDAs, including the graft-busting agency itself.
He said: “Additionally, the bureau has found that another set of 31 individuals from the private sector, the media, civil society and the legal fraternity also received money from Mr. Sattar during those eight months, bringing the total of those on the bureau’s list to 84.”
But the President said the ACB report contains no information or description on what his Vice-President, chief of staff and PPDA board chairperson did in relation to the five contracts it was investigating.
Ironically, despite taking action on the four and tasking Secretary to the President and Cabinet Colleen Zamba to act on other public officers mentioned in line with relevant laws, Chakwera described the ACB report as substandard to be relied upon. He said he took the action “for the sake of sustaining public trust”.
The President also accused the bureau of selective justice over its failure to name individuals it alleged received money from Sattar between 2008 and 2020.
Chakwera also lambasted the bureau for employing double standards by refusing to have the names of suspects shared publicly yet shared the same report with the Chief Justice and Speaker of Parliament.
But Chirwa said the ACB may have done so to give benefit to the other two branches of government in case their officials formed part of the list of suspects.
He said: “The President’s anger against ACB is unfounded. He gave them unrealistic deadline, but still they have produced a report he wanted. ACB perhaps wanted to be safe that the report is not only with one office.
“It appears the President is on both sides, of those implicated and those who want to see justice on this matter.”
Mpaka also said the sharing of the report to the other two branches also extends the benefit to these organs in case their officials have also been implicated.
He said: “In case there is a judge who has been named, the Chief Justice will surely take appropriate actions. I do not see a problem with the sharing of the report.”
Governance commentators have also faulted the President for his strong tone against ACB, saying it was intimidating.
In an interview last evening, Centre for Social Accountability and Transparency executive director Willy Kambwandira said ACB deserved the President’s support now than before.
He said: “We do not agree with him where he said the report shouldn’t have been shared with the Judiciary and Parliament.”
On his part, governance analyst Martin Chiphwanya said the President’s choice of words on the ACB was rather harsh and intimidating.
He said: “On one hand, the President appeared appreciative of the work the ACB is doing, but on the other hand he seemed to lack confidence in the bureau. But generally I find his decisions reasonable and responsive to public concerns.”
Chakwera asked ACB to provide the report after stating that he was aware of social media and purported UK court reports that Chilima, Kapondamgaga, former Solicitor General Reyneck Matemba and other high ranking officials were on the Sattar list. The President did not mention the officials and the businessperson by name at the time.