Outgoing United States (US) deputy chief of mission in Malawi Michael Gonzales had to endure awkward moments at Kamuzu International Airport (KIA) in Lilongwe on Wednesday when airport security officials briefly detained his suitcase after luggage screening machines detected what appeared to be an ivory carving in it.
The diplomat left the country after a three-year tour of duty. He is set for a new posting in the US diplomatic service.
Malawi has tightened security at its international departure-arrival gates, including its international airports at KIA and Chileka in Blantyre to arrest illegal trade in wildlife trophies such as ivory. The trade flourished in recent years in the face of a plunder of the country’s natural resources by poachers and several diplomats have been caught with such illegal trophies.
The flurry of activities at KIA, after Gonzales’ suitcase was being screened further by the security officers, made some people to conclude that the diplomat had been arrested. The news even went viral on social media.
But the US Embassy in Malawi told Nation on Sunday in Lilongwe on Friday that Gonzales “was not arrested” but that his suitcase had merely been subjected to a thorough security check before the luggage and the diplomat got cleared and proceeded with the trip.
Explained US Embassy public affairs officer Edward Monster: “As happens with all air passengers, his [Gonzales’] suitcase was scanned by authorities and the authorities saw something in the scan that warranted further inspection. They took the baggage aside and they opened it and they determined that the item was a very tiny one in the shape of an elephant.
“After further inspection, they determined that there was no reason for extra concern. The luggage was cleared and Mr. Gonvales departed as planned.”
It could not be readily established whether the carving in question, probably a memento meant to remind the owner of his fond memories in Malawi, was cast in ivory or, as one unconfirmed report suggests, in enamel.
Monster denied suggestions that the incident, which eventually saw the carving owner leaving it in the hands of the airport police for further inspection “just in case,” amounted to a diplomatic harassment or embarrassment.
“We have to say that we absolutely commend the Malawi authorities for noticing this (small questionable item in the suitcase). This is exactly what they should be doing with any potentially illegal item.
“It is a very good sign that the authorities at the airport are doing their job—and they are doing it well. We fully support the Malawi Government’s efforts to stop the illegal wildlife trade which is costing Malawi dearly,” he stated.
Asked whether Gonzales would later demand his carving back from the police, after all, Monster chuckled, firmly responding: “No. He does not want it back. It was a very tiny item.”
When he confirmed that he would, himself, also be departing Malawi yesterday for a three-week holiday in the US, Monster chuckled some more over this writer’s remark that wished him better luck with the KIA luggage screening machines.
“Frankly, if I do [carry a suspicious item], it’s good for the authorities to take it aside and take a look. That means they are doing their job. I can’t complain about it,” he laughed.
US Embassy members of staff are among a coalition of diplomats helping Malawi to wage a zero-tolerance war against poachers and other culprits plundering Malawi’s rich, but dwindling natural resources.
Ironically, KIA police publicist Sapulani Chitonde insisted that “nothing of that sort happened” at the airport and even his boss, national police publicist Nicholas Gondwa, skirted the issue and referred this writer to Chitonde, saying the KIA police spokesperson was best placed to comment, as he was on the ground.
The two are normally forthcoming publicists but their coy approach to this issue, especially after the US Embassy’s confirmation of the incident, indicated some jittery and belated information management over a sensitive diplomatic matter. n