The Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) is investigating a case in which Humphrey McNally’s tourism investment could reduce him to a poster child for shady land deals that are slowly turning the country into a harsh business destination.
On 28 October last year, McNally, from Washington DC, USA, wrote Minister of Justice Fahad Assani seeking assistance on the matter in which a local, Richard Chinyanga Chirwa, is trying to lease shoreline plot 477 situated at Nkhata Bay Boma.
The American, now stranded with no cash and business papers, started dealing with Chirwa in 2008 after inquiring about the land from a lands official, a Mr Mphande, whom he later engaged to do the measurements.
He proceeded to start building the tourist resort after temporarily renting it from Chirwa at K180 000 (US$431) per year on an agreement that he would permanently takeover upon his return the following year.
However, when he consulted lands officials after Mphande’s retirement, he was told that the beach spot was actually public land in nobody’s name.
This has led to a long drawn battle for the ownership of the investment worth approximately K15 million (US$35 885), leaving McNally being dumped by six lawyers, obtaining injunctions, getting threats and counter-injunction and referring the matter to various ministries as well as President Joyce Banda and US Embassy.
But in an act of rapid response lacking throughout the case, Justice Minister Fahad Assani referred the matter to ACB director Rizine Mzikamanda whose letter, dated October, acknowledged receiving the appeal and promised: “The complainant will duly be processed and that the bureau will revert to the complainant soon”.
But speaking exclusively to Weekend Nation last week, McNally literally wept as he recounted how the wheels of justice are turning too slow for his liking.
“This has taken away five years of my life. My big dreams have been destroyed,” said McNally of the investment in an area that captivated him with its smiling people and stunning sights of the continent’s third largest fresh water lake.
The traveller, who first landed in the country as a tourist in 2007, said he returned the following year when he inquired about the 0.9 hectare portion and was directed to Ronald Chinyanga Chirwa who reportedly owned it.
However, after renting the place, he was told by his lawyer Godfrey Masi that the land was publicly owned and has no deed.
Now a restaurant and bar stand at the contentious site, with three structures artistically suspended over the lake with a wooden footbridge linking them to each other. The protruding trio of huts have been subject of a matter which has been to courts and back, with proof of payment indicating it reached President Joyce Banda’s office in April 2012.
On August 18 2011, lawyer Phillip Banda got an injunction restraining Chirwa and his agents from doing anything or act whatsoever in connection with the land.
But before becoming a magistrate in Blantyre, lawyer Viva Nyimba, on advice from Chirwa, later obtained an injunction varying the continuance of the construction.
A few weeks later, the lawyer filed a contempt of court case against the foreigner for reportedly continuing construction on the land despite the court order.
However, the investor showed Weekend Nation a batch of signed paper from witnesses saying nothing was happening on the site during the period.
The investor has spent four years in the country without requisite documents since lawyer Victor Gondwe’s efforts to process a business residence permit before his return in 2009 proved futile.
To salvage the situation, the American wrote the Lands Minister Henry Phoya who sent a team to look into the issue.
On Tuesday, Phoya confirmed: “I’m aware that he approached us in writing and we deployed a team to investigate. As regards to the findings and ownership of the land, talk to the Principal Secretary.”
But Principal Secretary for Lands and Housing Ivy Luhanga said the inspectors from the ministry’s headquarters and Mzuzu recommended to McNally to take the matter to court.
Dissatisfied with how the ministry is handling the matter, McNally wrote President Joyce Banda in April two years ago. In August 2012, former Principal Secretary for Foreign Affairs Kabambe phoned him stating that the president has instructed his ministry to look into the matter.
Having spent about K1.5 million (US$3588) chasing business and residency papers on top of spending K15 million in developing the property which is deteriorating, he said: “Save for Justice Minister Assan’s response, I wonder why no one is helping me, the lawyers, police, lands officials and relevant ministries,”
On December 4 last year, acting regional commissioner for lands AO Thumba wrote him to say the land was leased to Chirwa’s daughter, Chifundo, in August 2013.
“We write to advise you that it will not be prudent on the part of this ministry to process your application for the same land,” reads the letter, suggesting that he seeks a possible sublease.
Ministry of Lands and Housing public relations officer, Mike Chigowo, refused to comment on the matter this week saying: “The disagreement between Mr. McNally and Mr. Chirwa over the land you have mentioned is currently in court as such it is not appropriate for the ministry to comment on the issue.”
Chirwa could not be reached for his side of the story, but a letter written on April 1 2011 by Nkhata Bay lands official Gladys Mdumuka shows he complained to the district commissioner that McNally was “attempting to grab Chirwa’s land at Nkhata Bay using your own techniques”.
McNally, who is surviving on handouts from friends in the US and a small fishing boat which fetches him just enough for meals, lamented: “I left the US with a substantial amount of money to invest here but I’m stuck. I’m kind of imprisoned; I cannot move or go out of the country although my family is advising me to go back.
“While here, I have endured death threats, I have lived in a hut with a muddy floor and no electricity. I have endured malaria and diarrhoea. Now I’m on medication of blood pressure and other stress-related ailments,”
He claims he has no money to challenge the injunction Chirwa obtained in June 2012. In July the same year, he appeared at Nkhata Bay First Grade Magistrate’s Court to answer the charges of making a document without authority (contrary to Section 364 of the Penal Code), but the court “was persuaded not to convict him because he had actually acted under desperation”.
He is still waiting for the business residence permit that stalled in file Number 85535 at the Immigration Headquarters in Blantyre. He rues how he was summoned from Nkhata Bay to the Immigration Office only to reconfirm his phone contacts.
His aide, former watchman Charles Mwase, 27, says he has seen the man cry like a baby and protected him from physical attacks resulting from the dispute.