LILONGWE (MaraviPost) — A sample of Malawians, bitter with the looting of public funds in the historic Cashgate scandal, on Wednesday told MaraviPost that they want to see the high court in Lilongwe deliver a harsh sentence to the first convict ex-PS for Tourism, Treza Namathanga Senzani, when she appears at the court to hear her verdict Thursday, October 2.
“The court must send a strong message that theft of public money should not be tolerated,” a Limbe shoe vendor Mayamiko told Maravipost.
“I should not be a vendor when all the monies that were stolen were used to create jobs,” Mayamiko said, mobbed by four of his friends, also selling shoes.
Senzani pleaded guilty to charges of theft of K63 million and money laundering in the first conviction of the Cashgate scandal trials.
Selling tomatoes, Mayi Simeon, speaking tough in Chichewa, said: “whether she is a woman or a man, the courts should not be lenient because it will show we are not serious. I hear white people are also furious with us and are denying us their money because of this theft.”
She was apparently referring to the suspension of $150 million in aid until Lilongwe cleans up the mess.
A primary school teacher at Kanjedza township in Blantyre, who did not want to be named, said she was expecting the court to hand a stiffer sentence to “teach thieves a lesson.”
“We receive our salaries late every month because the government has no money when the same money is being stolen by other people,” she said.
Judge Ivy Kamanga will deliver the judgment after defence lawyer for Senzani sought a lighter sentence, while prosecutors from the Anti-Corruption Bureau demanded custodial maximum sentences of five years for theft and 10 years for money laundering.
Senzani pleaded guilty before the judge that she stole money worth K63 million without any intention of giving it back to government.
Senzani was arrested last year after a probe found she issued two government cheques to her own company which did not provide any goods or services to government.
She becomes the first senior civil servant to be convicted in the scandal following a report by British auditors — commissioned by former president Joyce Banda – which showed that K13 billion ($30 million) had been stolen from the government within a six-month period last year.
Defence lawyer Necton Mhura, in a hearing last month, argued that the “law is very clearly that as a first offender, she should not be sentenced to imprisonment…the court must find good grounds for doing so and good grounds are not there.”
Mhura said his client must be given a sentence of less than a year in prison, and not more than a year or she must receive a suspended sentence, which means she will not serve a prison term but will be obliged not to make a similar offence for a specified period.
Mhura said while he accepted that a maximum sentence for theft was five years and ten years for money laundering, he submitted to the court that “maximum is simply a maximum sentence, it does not have to be imposed as maximum.”
He said maximum sentences were reserved for the serious offences and should not be imposed on the accused who had “pleaded guilty.”
He said by pleading guilty, his client had not wasted court’s time and not wasted taxpayer’s money in lengthy prosecution. “Pleas of guilty must be encouraged,” Mhura said.
Renecky Matemba, the deputy director of the ACB, told the court in argument to Mhura’s take that this was the first case of money laundering and drew the court’s attention of the impact Cashgate had done to the economy as well as public interest.
“We are not looking at plea of guilty as a sign of remorse, we are simply looking at the mitigating factors the court may take to account when it comes to sentencing,” Matemba said.
He said the accused had pleaded guilty and the court should consider that what Mrs. Senzani did by stealing state monies was a “breach of trust and responsibility” on her part.
He said as PS for Tourism, Wildlife and Culture, one of her functions as controlling officer was to “safeguard government finances…she was entrusted by the government of Malawi to be a custodian of finances.”
“What did she do? Instead of looking after the finances, she decided to steal some of it. The law is very clearly in as far as employee/employer relationship is concerned, the law does not take that kindly.” The deputy ACB chief said.
He said instead of Senzani “safeguarding resources, she did the opposite. As if this is not enough, she was chairperson of the internal procurement committee…she knew what she was doing.”
“She knew that by taking K63 million when she did not supply any goods or services, she would be caught, she would be punished and lose her job. The fact that she will lose her job should not sway this court to be lenient on her…she intended that consequence, my lady,” he said.
He said Malawians were victims of Cashgate, urging the court to take into account the fact the “monies stolen belonged to Malawians, it was tax payer’s money and a government is the people.”
He said the withdrawal of aid by donors because of Cashgate was a direct impact on people because the country depends on 40 percent of donor aid to bankroll the budget.
“I feel sad because the counsel for defence does not see the connection between thefts of or plunder of government money and the withdrawal of donor aid.
“Donors did not withdraw aid because the system was defective; they withdrew aid because people including the defendant [Senzani] stole government finances.”
Matemba said no one can dispute the fact that because of Cashgate and subsequent withdrawal of aid, “we are likely to keep on feeling the impact because we have a zero-aid budget.”
“I urge this court to give a custodial sentence that fits with the offences and in line with the public interest,” Matemba said.
He added: “An element of criminality still stands. You stole, you stole.”
International donors, who provide 40 percent of Malawi’s budget, pulled the plug on vital aid worth around $150 million (110 million euros) last year after it emerged that millions had been siphoned off from government coffers.
The so-called Cashgate scheme is the biggest financial scandal in the history of the country, which heavily depends of foreign aid.