14 July 2024 | 01:12 AM

Mutharika’s ‘abuse’ of police under fire

Key Takeaways

Hundreds of Malawian police officers are deployed to line the routes taken by President Peter Mutharika’s motorcade during his constant tours of the country, prompting complaints of a “complete abuse” of the security services.

Policemen told amaBhungane that they have to stand for up to 16 hours during these exercises, often without being fed.

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That is despite a 2.7-billion kwacha (R54-million) contract to supply VIP protection officers with 500 000 ration packs, which has been at the centre of corruption allegations against Mutharika.

An Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) report leaked to the media in June last year forced the president to confirm that the businessman who won the rations tender, Zameer Karim, had deposited MK145-million (R2.9-million) in an account of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party for which he (Mutharika) is the sole signatory. The president called it “an honest donation”. (See sidebar).

Signed on August 4 2015, the contract required Karim to deliver the 500 000 ration packs within 20 weeks.

Allegations that the rations are not being distributed has turned a spotlight on Malawi’s unique practice of stationing police along all the routes Mutharika takes on his frequent trips around the country, both within and between cities.

Police declined to say how many officers are involved in these VVIP protection exercises. However, the guards are stationed about 100m apart, meaning that for the 312 kilometre trip between Lilongwe and Blantyre more than 3 000 officers would be required.

The practice began under Malawi’s first president, Kamuzu Banda, who deployed members of the Malawi Young Pioneers, the paramilitary wing of the ruling party. When the Pioneers were disbanded, the police took over their guarding function.

Eugenio Njoloma, a security studies lecturer at Mzuzu University, said much as the security of the head of state is of paramount importance, the lining of routes by police is not a responsible use of police time.

Njoloma said policemen are already few in number, with the police-citizen ratio standing at one to 1 000.

He said routine police duties such as foot and vehicle patrols and the processing of prosecutions are disrupted whenever the president is on the move.

Police stations with fewer than 40 officers are left denuded, as the entire staff is forced to stand guard as the president passes.

“This diverts policing attention to one person,” he said. “It prevents citizens in many policing areas from accessing police services.”

Njoloma said Malawi does not pose such unique security risks that require such a practice, which may have started as a result of “overzealous senior police officers wanting to please the president”.

“The president in Malawi is not naturally at risk… [but they] create risks themselves by disregarding good governance, which incites people’s anger. Then the president feels threatened,” he argued.

Retired Malawi Defence Force brigadier Marcel Chirwa, who now a runs a security consultancy, the Centre for Peace and Security Management, said Kamuzu Banda’s successor in the presidency, Bakili Muluzi, continued the practice of lining the president’s routes but transferred it to the police.

Chirwa said it is a “complete abuse” of police time, as a motorcade is quite sufficient for security.

An intelligence source told amaBhungane that Mutharika’s motorcade typically comprises between eight and ten motorcyclists and up to 90 vehicles, all armoured.

These carry bodyguards, intelligence officials and medical personnel.

In interviews with amaBhungane, officers said that that the duration of their guard duty varies depending on Mutharika’s itinerary.

One police source said that when he travels the 300km route from Mzuzu City to Chitipa in the north of Malawi, along poor roads, officers are stationed along the roadside by 4am.

The president might pass the first officers between 8am and 9am and then return at 8pm at night. The policemen would thus stand continuously for 16 hours.

Mutharika goes on regular excursions and always travels by car. According to the government’s Facebook page, he took 30 trips between January and March this year.

With national elections set for May 21 he is constantly moving round the country whipping up electoral support.

An officer from northern region said police guards were told that they were not generally entitled to allowances or food rations because protecting Mutharika’s motorcade was deemed part of their normal duties.

“Sometimes they give us a pack of dry rations which consists of either tinned beef or tinned fish, a biscuit and a packet of porridge powder or juice powder,” explained the officer who asked to remain anonymous. “But most of the time we spend hours without food.”

She said that guards were often deployed in places far from human habitation, meaning that the water and power required to cook porridge and mix juice are not available.

An officer from the central region agreed that that the provision of food rations is intermittent. “I would say out of 10 of these operations, we can get the rations once,” he said.

The officer also complained that policemen sometimes have to stand in the rain without raincoats being provided.

He added that there had been attempts to take up the matter with senior officers, who argued that “we just stand for a couple of hours and so do not need food”.

“This is a lie because the minimum we spend on the road when the president is travelling is five or six hours,” he said.

An officer from the southern region said that “sometimes they will just cook some rice and beans and start distributing that to us”.

However, this was rare. “Most of the time we are left to fend for ourselves, and we can just suffer with hunger. You know as a constable my net salary is not even 100 000 kwacha (R2 000) a month.”

He said lower-ranking officers suspect that most of the food rations are shared among the “big bosses”.

Mutharika’s press secretary, Mgeme Kalilani, said the allegations that policemen posted to guard Mutharika are not being fed are “news to the State House”.

Kalilani said that the government made inquiries and established that the rations are available.

“What we have gathered is that the police have adequate food supplies for staff during operations in all policing regions. The supplies can actually [last] them several months,” he said.

“If indeed there are such concerns, you may wish to check with the police commissioners in charge of the policing region concerned why that should be the case when they have the stocks,” he added.

On whether guarding Mutharika’s motorcade was an appropriate use of police time, Kalilani said this is purely a security issue.

“I don’t think the President should be the one explaining or justifying how the police carry out their duties in relation to the President’s office,” he said.

The regional commissioner referred amaBhungane’s questions to the spokesperson for national police, James Kadadzera, who said “aggrieved” police officers should forward their complaints to the authorities “using proper channels as per police procedure”.

A senior officer in the police procurement department, speaking anonymously, said that rations were sometimes not provided “because of issues of funding”, and that in such cases “officers will have to sort themselves out”.

The system, he said, was that the supplies are sent to national police headquarters, which then distributes them to regional headquarters.

“If the regional offices run out of stock because headquarters haven’t supplied them the officers will have to operate without rations, because security issues cannot suffer,” he said.

Minister of homeland security Nicholas Dausi, who is responsible for VIP protection, also said he is not aware that police officers are not being fed while protecting Mutharika. Dausi asked for more time to make his own findings.

Pioneer Investments boss Zameer Karim refused to comment. “You are phoning the wrong person,” he said. “Find out from them (the police). I don’t want to comment on this matter any more. It’s my right not to comment.”

There is plenty for the police to do in Malawi.

The country does not publish crime statistics, but a 2018 assessment by the US state department, prepared for American visitors, says the crime and safety situation is “consistent with many impoverished and developing countries where crime remains a serious concern”.

It refers to vehicle robberies, car hijackings, residential burglaries, armed robberies and home invasions.

The report also says that criminals, commonly armed with pangas and sometimes with firearms, tend to work in groups of between five and 15 and are quick to use violence if their demands are not met.

It also refers to outbreaks of vigilante violence, saying these “are often a result of public distrust and lack of confidence in the Malawi Police Services”.

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The US report also describes Malawi’s porous borders as ripe for exploitation, leading to the facilitation of human trafficking, drug trafficking, illegal migration and other cross-border crime.

“An honest donation”

What has become known as “Policegate” is the biggest corruption scandal directly to implicate Malawi’s President Peter Mutharika since he came to power in 2014.

It came to light when an Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) report, leaked to The Nation newspaper, made detailed allegations of fraud in a R2.7-billion kwacha (R54-million) contract for ration packs signed between the Malawi Police Service and local company Pioneer Investments in 2015.

The ACB report alleged that Pioneer boss Zameer Karim deposited the police payment into a company account with a negative balance of MK30 425 (about R600), and two days later transferred MK145-million (R2.9-million) from the same account into an account of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of which Mutharika was the sole signatory.

Mutharika opened the account a year after being elected president in May 2014, and between January and October 2016 allegedly withdrew MK65-million (R1.3-million) from it.

When there was no immediate reaction from those fingered by the report, Mzuzu-based NGO Youth and Society asked the High Court in Blantyre to freeze the accounts of both the DPP and Pioneer Investments.

The court granted the order, which was later overturned on appeal.

The payment into the DPP account was one of numerous anomalies in the rations tender.

Shortly after it was awarded, Karim allegedly wrote to police director of finance Innocent Bottoman requesting an upward price adjustment of 20% and citing depreciation of the Malawi kwacha against the US dollar.

According to the ACB investigation, the percentage depreciation of the kwacha against the dollar over the relevant period was l.6%.

Bottoman allegedly authorised the escalation, without the required approval of police management, the police internal procurement department or the Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets Authority.

The ACB report found that the two men started working together six months before the tender was advertised, when they allegedly applied to CDH Investment Bank for two loans supposedly for the rations procurement, illegally using the police as guarantor.

The signature of Tadius Samveka, deputy director of finance for the police, was allegedly forged, and the ACB found the loans – for a total of about MK3.8-billion (R76-million) – were never repaid.

Bottoman and Karim have been charged with theft and forgery, while Bottoman faces the additional charge of abuse of office. They pleaded not guilty and are out on bail.

Parliament’s public accounts and legal affairs committees recommended the prosecution of police officers involved in the rations procurement, saying they also committed fraud.

But four months after The Nation’s exposé, it emerged that the Police Service Commission had not yet moved against senior police officers involved in the deal, claiming it had received no report on the matter.

As pressure mounted, the DPP announced plans to return the contentious K145-million donation to Pioneer Investments.

Announcing this at a press briefing in Lilongwe five months after the scandal broke, minister of homeland security and DPP spokesperson Nicholas Dausi said the party felt it right to return the money because there had been a “public misunderstanding”.

Days later, Mutharika, interviewed on the taxpayer-funded Malawi Broadcasting Corporation, said he was not aware that the money may have been channelled from a questionable deal.

However, he said he was convinced it was an honest donation, insisting that it is normal the world over for individuals or companies to donate to political parties.

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Malawi enacted a law requiring the disclosure of party funding late last year, but it is not yet in force.

Mutharika continues to sit tight, apparently calculating that the storm will blow over. He is safe at least until the presidential election in May this year, as under the Malawi constitution sitting presidents are immune from prosecution. _ Gregory Gondwe

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Before joining the amaBhungane team in 2017, Micah was the national coordinator for media freedom and diversity at the Right2Know Campaign. He holds a Masters in African Studies from Oxford University and a BA Honours in History from Wits University.

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