LILONGWE-(MaraviPost)-President Lazarus Chakwera’s Tonse Alliance Government says it is ready to prosecute public officers who flouted the law in the disposal of farm equipment procured with a US$50 million loan from Exim Bank of India eight years ago.
Attorney General Thabo Chakaka-Nyirenda told The Nation Newspaper this week that the matter , popularly known as tractorgate, is on the menu and the State will take legal action against the suspects.
Top government civil servants and politicians including former Speaker of National Assembly, Richard Msowoya, former vice President Khumbo Kachali, former Chief of Staff and operation at State house Peter Mukhito and former Foreign Minister Francis Kasaila are among beneficiaries in the infamous tractor gate.
Said Chakaka-Nyirenda: “We had competing priorities to undertake, which consumed our time.”
In 2012, the Malawi Government obtained the multi-billion kwacha loan and bought 177 tractors, 144 maize shellers, seed cum and fertiliser application drilling machines in a drive to mechanise farming. The equipment was meant for hiring out to smallholder farmers.
But 100 of the tractors ended up being sold to politicians and senior government officials at very low prices, according to a 2016 Office of the Ombudsman report.
Our calculations at the time, each of the 60 horse power tractors was sold at K5.6 million ($9 300.05) against the market price of K37 million ($61 446.8) for similar brands at Tata Malawi.
In the report, the Office of the Ombudsman detailed how some of the tractors and other farm machinery were illegally sold as a routine public auction in disregard of the country’s laws.
After the auction, K143 million could not be traced while only 77 tractors were distributed to agricultural development divisions (ADDs) across the country.
In the report, the Ombudsman asked the country’s prosecuting authorities to crack down on State procurement chiefs implicated in the scandal.
Ombudsman Grace Malera said in a written questionnaire that in 2016 the office recommended to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), prosecution of members of the internal procurement committee (IPC) who presided over the sale of the farm machinery and benefitted from the sale.
She said: “It is the expectation of the Office of the Ombudsman that this matter continues to receive the DPP’s attention.”
Malera said some of the directives, which have been partially complied with include that the National Audit Office (NAO) should audit three India lines of credit by June 31 2017.
Others were that the Greenbelt Authority and Ministry of Agriculture should prepare reports on poor performance of equipment, which should include issues of problematic installations, poor quality equipment and faulty machines, and that the reports were to be forwarded to ODPP within 30 days of issuing the report.
Commenting on the development, governance expert Willy Kambwandira, who is also Centre for Social Accountability Initiative executive director, said it is encouraging that government has at last decided to take action on the matter.
According to Kambwandira, failure to prosecute public officers involved in the dubbed tractor gate smacked of selective justice.
He said: “It has potential to erode public trust in our oversight institutions and discouraging whistle-blowers. We expect the law to take on these officers, and we hope this is not public perception to fool Malawians.”
On his part, Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) executive director Gift Trapence observed that the issue has been outstanding and Malawians have been waiting to see justice on it.
Said Trapence: “HRDC expects the AG not to be selective in pushing for justice but also to push for other related cases such as the botched fertiliser deal, the issue of the NFRA [National Food Relief Agency] maize going missing. Malawians want justice and accountability.”
Ministry of Finance and Economic Affairs spokesperson Taurai Banda, in an earlier interview, indicated that the loan matured and debt servicing started last year.
Taxpayers are expected to pay about $58 million (about K58 billion) over 25 years to clear the loan which is being serviced from the consolidated account.
The loan has an average interest rate of 1.5 percent per annum.
Banda also said subsequent deductions are being made directly through the government payroll of each officer who bought the equipment.
A 2019 audit report by NAO found that at least K143 million from the sale of disposed of tractors was not banked.
Among key findings of the audit, NAO indicated that the procurement process used a non-competitive method of single sourcing, the tractors and their allied equipment were substandard and that there was a change of the objective of the Loan Authorisation Bill.
The audit report, further observed that there was conflict of interest between some IPC members in the deal, and notes that K341 395 9I4.36 was the difference between the purchase and selling price of the tractors and their allied implements.
According to the report, auditors uncovered that one buyer won three tenders after bidding under different company names.
The Ombudsman’s report also called for an apology to the people of Malawi, which government belatedly issued following a court action.
Two senior public officials, notably the Secretary to the Treasury and Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture were later found in contempt of court for failing to adhere to some of the recommendations.
Disclaimer: Additional information is sourced from Nation Newspaper