The High Court has set July 12 2019 to hear the Ombudsman’s application for contempt of court order against two principal secretaries (PS) for allegedly disobeying a court ruling relating to disposal of tractors bought using public funds.
The Ombudsman’s move follows a Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal ruling of February 11 2019 for the two public officers to issue a public “apology for buying equipment that was archaic and sitting idle and deteriorating, thus unnecessarily indebting Malawians and for the illegal selling of the tractors”.
The Supreme Court had backed Ombudsman Martha Chizuma’s demand for the apology for the flawed procurement and disposal of farm equipment using a $50 million (about K40 billion) loan from the Government of India in 2012.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Attorney General Kalekeni Kaphale, whose office is the chief legal adviser to the government, said the State will comply with the determination by the Ombudsman following the Ombudsman’s contempt of court charges on two PSs for ministries of Finance, Economic Planning and Development and Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development.
He said: “We have already made progress in ensuring that we comply with the directive. I have already vetted the statements of apology for the two PSs. I am sure very soon the statements will be released before the contempt hearing sits.”
In the summons dated June 12 2019, the court warns the two PSs that they risk being fined or imprisoned or both. In case the officers fail to attend, the court says the matter will be dealt with in their absence.
Initially, the Attorney General had described the demand for the apology as unreasonable and was favoured by the High Court, but the Ombudsman successfully appealed the decision.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Chizuma said her office will now await the court hearing. She lamented that there was no progress to implement her demands.
She said: “We have a feeling they might respond positively because that is what everybody wants.”
Ruling on the appeal, the Supreme Court said the Ombudsman’s Office acted within its mandate by ordering the respective offices to comply with its order for a public apology on how they managed the procurement and disposal.
Besides the apology, the Ombudsman, in a 48-page report titled The President Toiling, The Future Overburdened, the Ombudsman also recommended prosecution of the members of the Internal Procurement Committee (IPC) and “those who presided over the sale of the farm machinery and benefitted from the sale should be prosecuted in accordance with the Procurement Act”.
The farm machinery in question included 100 tractors and 144 maize shellers. In total, 177 tractors were bought for distribution to agriculture development divisions (ADDs) to enable poor smallholder farmers graduate to mechanization by hiring the equipment. However, only 77 tractors were distributed to ADDs while 100 were sold.