It is common detail that the K1.7 billion graft case involving ex-President Bakili Muluzi is one of the most high-profile court cases to have been tried in Malawi.
Muluzi, alongside his former personal assistant Violet Whisky, is being accused of corruptly diverting $11 million (about K1.7 billion at the time the alleged offence happened) aid money into his personal bank accounts during his reign and shortly after retirement in May 2004.
Together, the two were initially charged with 80 counts which were later trimmed to 15.
This criminal case dates back to 2006 when the country’s first democratically elected leader was arrested, but the State only took him to court in February 2009.
Since then, the case has stagnated due to numerous adjournments mainly attributed to the former president’s ill-health and defence objections.
For seven years, the courts have evidently ‘failed’ to bring the matter, which has changed one lawyer after the other, to its conclusion.
At some point, speculations were rife that the State was considering dropping the matter altogether after it returned Muluzi’s vehicles impounded in 2009 on suspicion that he acquired them through shady earnings.
Highly placed sources told our sister paper Nation on Sunday that government was pressuring officials at Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs, Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) and ACB to review the case then drop it.
But DPP Mary Kachale refused to comment on reports of possible dropping of the case.
She said: “This case is with ACB and has been prosecuted by ACB from the word go, please refer your queries to them.”
However, after several months of dormancy, the matter resurfaced at the High Court in Blantyre in April this year for continuation of trial.
The resumption of the matter followed the defence’s move to withdraw its earlier application to have the case under constitutional review.
And in absolute terms, the presiding Judge Maclean Kamwambe created a feeling of ‘a case about to finish’.
He openly cautioned both the defence and prosecution that he would not tolerate any unwarranted adjournments.
The judge indicated he would hear the matter continuously from April 11 to 22 with “any extensions restricted to only the first week of May 2016.”
The judge’s declaration was apparently a message aimed at ensuring a speedy conclusion of the proceedings. But, as it stands today, the journey continues and the public is zealously following.
In April, the case was set to begin with cross-examination of key prosecution witness Victor Banda, a former Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) assistant director, who also headed investigations of Muluzi’s alleged corrupt acts.
However, on the very first day the case failed to begin after Banda did not turn up reportedly due to sickness.
Ironically, barely a week into trial the matter was again hurriedly adjourned after Muluzi’s co-accused collapsed while in the dock.
The matter looked destined for a split trial following ACB’s application for the same to avoid delays of the proceedings because of Whiskey’s illness. But it progressed after she was certified fit.
During trial, lead prosecutor Reyneck Matemba, who is deputy director of ACB, recused himself from the case citing personal issues.
This forced the defence to apply to the court to have the case dismissed, arguing the State was not serious with the matter.
The Malawi Law Society (MLS) also took a swipe at the graft-busting body, saying its operational independence was grossly compromised.
On September 6 2016, the last day of cross examination, Muluzi’s lawyers told The Nation, the State witness had apparently failed to prove that the accused obtained the money corruptly.
For one week, the defence lawyers Tamando Chokhotho and Jai Banda grilled Victor Banda who just kept on confessing that he had no evidence that the money was corruptly obtained by Muluzi.
The lawyers brought forward figures of money deposited into Muluzi’s different accounts from both local and international institutions and individuals which Banda conceded he had no evidence that the money was acquired fraudulently.
Victor Banda told the court: “ACB was only suspicious because there was no proper explanation and documentation from the accused.”
Ultimately, the prosecution witness could not provide proof of corruption in fiscal transactions amounting to about K1.1 billion, of which the greater part came from a Chinese bank.
“The fact that the chief investigator [Banda] has admitted there is no evidence to support that the K1.7 billion that had been touted over the years, was corruptly obtained I think it is a major step in this particular fight and we are delighted with the results being yielding,” said Chokotho.
But State lawyer Clement Mwala argued that failure by Victor Banda to prove that the money was corruptly obtained did not mean there was no case because other witnesses were yet to testify.
The State then brought to court original bank statements to tender as evidence to substantiate their corruption claims.
But for the second time, the defence applied to have the case shifted to the Constitutional Court, arguing it was a highly politically case that needed to be heard before a panel of three judges.
Thus far, analysts have observed the slow pace has led to the waning of hype that characterised the case over the years.
At the outset, a horde of sympathisers and supporters used to throng the court room as well as the premises in solidarity but the numbers have now dwindled.
Getting into the year 2017, while Judge Kamwambe is expected to make his determination on whether the case should be transferred to the Constitutional Court or not, Malawians are anxiously looking forward to the logical conclusion of the decade-old case. n