Malawi: Unravelling a web of corruption

President Chakwera was elected with a mandate to clean up corruption. But this pits him against some of the country’s richest men – and even members of his own cabinet.

Malawi’s president Lazarus Chakwera dissolved his entire cabinet after corruption charges were brought against his ministers of lands, labour and energy.

Announcing the decision on Monday, he said it was taken to compel the three ministers and other public officials to answer to the charges and accusations.

The accusations against Newton Kambala, the energy minister, are related to fuel import deals. Labour minister Ken Kandodo is accused of stealing Covid funds. Kezzie Msukwa, the lands minister, is said to have profited off a land conflict involving a UK-based Malawian businessman.

It’s the climax of an anti-corruption sweep that has also implicated former and current public officials in the central bank, the immigration department and the ministries of finance, local government and gender.

In October, Malawian and UK authorities collaborated to arrest billionaire Zuneth Sattar, the UK-based businessman in the case involving the lands minister. He is accused of having bribed Msukwa with cash and a car to gain leverage in a conflict with a local community.

In early December, the former finance minister Joseph Mwanamveka and Dalitso Kabambe, a former central bank governor, were arrested over the allegedly corrupt sale of a state-owned bank, and falsifying official documents.

On the same day, Ben Phiri, also a former minister, was arrested for alleged corruption in the gender ministry between 2018 and 2020. In mid-December, Malawi’s anticorruption bureau arrested billionaire Abdul Karim Batatawala and Fletcher Nyirenda, a commissioner at the immigration department, over a procurement contract that had led the Malawian government to lose 4.7-billion Malawian kwacha ($5.7-million). They all pleaded not guilty.

Batatawala’s story is a striking tale of what a man might make of himself even in a small economy, if, under the table, he shakes hands with government officials whose propensity for graft go unchecked.

Speaking confidentially to The Continent, a close associate of the flamboyant businessman said he “owns almost half of real estate in Blantyre,” and estimated his net worth at 80-billion Malawi kwacha ($100-million). Blantyre is Malawi’s commercial centre.

Batatawala did not respond to The Continent’s requests for comment.

Road to riches

Batatawala, who is of Indian origin, arrived in Malawi with his two brothers in 1992. His first job was a shopkeeper selling watches and batteries in an electronics shop in Limbe, a small centre in Blantyre. He worked for the company for three years before quitting to set up his own business.

He worked under the radar until 2002, his first brush with the law, when he was arrested for procurement fraud. He was acquitted. Today his business interests include: Blantyre-based healthcare facility, Sheffer Clinic; luxury apartments, a lakeside cottage, an office complex, two malls, several warehouses and shopping centres under his Pamodzi Settlement Trust; real estate in India, South Africa, the UK and Dubai; and a raft of companies with which he nets a steady stream of government contracts.

Of his many supply contracts with Malawian government bodies, the most eye-popping was the 2012 award to supply uniforms to the immigration department for 10-billion kwacha.

The department’s entire annual budget is about 500-million kwacha. In 2019, without delivering the uniforms, Batatawala demanded that the department pay him 53-billion kwacha, more than five times the agreed amount when the contract was signed.

It was in the midst of such displays of graft and government dysfunction that Chakwera campaigned for the presidency. Even the incumbent then, Peter Mutharika, was implicated, accused of receiving a $180,000 bribe from a businessman the year before. Chakwera pledged that fighting corruption would be a major undertaking of his government.

Now he and his newly-appointed cabinet must deliver.

As noted by Malawi’s former public prosecutor Kamudoni Nyasulu, the arrests are a good start, but if they are to be of any consequence they must be followed by successful prosecutions and convictions. “We have been here before,” Nyasulu told The Continent. “Unless we move past arrests, this means nothing.”

*This story first appeared in The Continent

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