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TALKING BLUES: 53 billion reasons that got Chikosa Silungwe “fired”

Following President Lazarus Chakwera terminating Attorney General (AG) Chikosa Silungwe’s contract just a year into his three-year term, many theories are flying around as to the why.This speculation is fuelled by the fact that President Chakwera has not disclosed the reasons publicly.

One theory suggests that Silungwe was fired because his legal opinions irked President Chakwera.“Removal of the AG started a while ago following his legal opinions.” A source is said to have confided in The Daily Times.Let’s interrogate this.

The most controversial of Silungwe’s legal opinions was his advice to Chakwera not to fire the then Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) commissioners Linda Kunje and Jean Mathanga because doing so would throw the country into a legal quagmire.Chakwera nevertheless fired them. The two were, however, quickly reinstated.

Then, as would have happened only in a James Hardly Chase, Malawi Congress Party (MCP), through its Secretary-General, sued the State President who happens to be MCP President and succeeded in expelling the undesirable commissioners. In a fairy-tale, next would have been: “and they lived happily ever after”. However, this is real life.

Peter Mutharika has since asked the Constitutional Court to interpret the law and see whether the fact that the four had been dismissed did not nullify the elections they presided over. Thus setting off the very legal quagmire that Silungwe had “prophesied”.

Was Silungwe right? Wrong? Was his opinion “bad advice”?Other people are pointing to leaks. However, those leaks carried the Office of President and Cabinet (OPC)’s and Mec’s stamps.Moreover, the fact that Silungwe will be paid all benefits he was entitled to rules out wrongdoing.This raises the question: why? If it is not wrongdoing, has Silungwe been fired for doing his job too well?Before I proceed, let me take you back to Monday, 4 February 2019. Although this is long before Silungwe became AG, it is as good a date as any to begin our quest using the old age journalistic wisdom: follow the money.“Follow the money”, coincidentally, is a catchphrase popularized by William Goldman’s screenplay for the 1976 film “All the President’s Men”, which suggests that political corruption can be brought to light by examining money transfers between parties.

So, here we are, following the money. Forget about Mec, pending litigation or leaks. These theories are just that: theories.Let’s follow the money. Let’s begin with The Daily Times’ headline of Monday 4 February 2019: “Government challenges K53 billion claim”.Therein, two companies are reported claiming MK53.9 billion from the Department of Immigration and Citizenship Services. The then Information and Communications Technology Minister, Henry Mussa, didn’t tolerate that.“…..government is vehemently opposing and challenging the said claim in the courts of law. It is the unflinching position of [the] government that the said claim is dubious and aimed at defrauding Treasury and State coffers,” a statement from the Ministry said.

The background is that Africa Commercial Agency and Reliance Trading Company were demanding MK53.9 billion for an MK9 billion contract which Immigration Department awarded them in 2012 to supply uniforms and other accessories, but delivery only started five years later.

Hell broke loose when it emerged that the suppliers were pegging an immigration officer’s uniform shirt and a belt at MK60,000 and MK100,000, respectively.The issue hybernated and resurfaced in June this year.The Daily Times of 15 June 2021, headline “MK53 billion Immigration saga”, reported that the two companies, owned by businessman Abdul Karim Batatawala had on 7 June 2010 written the office of the Attorney General (AG) – i.e. Chikosa Silungwe – asking to settle the matter out of court.

“We wish to advise that our client has instructed us to approach you, on a without-prejudice-basis, to explore possibilities of discussing this matter out of court amicably.””It is our client’s view that if we proceed with the negotiated amicable out-of-court discussions, we will achieve a speedy and less costly result as opposed to how we are proceeding now. Please advise us whether our client’s proposal is acceptable to you and indicate to us when you are available for such negotiations,” the letter said.

It continued, “It is our clients’ view that if we proceed with the negotiated amicable out of court discussions, we will achieve a speedy and less costly result as opposed to how we are proceeding now,” Nampota said on his client’s behalf.

Silungwe responded: “We are not settling the matter out of court. We are defending the claim in court to the end.”

According to the claimants, Silungwe’s predecessor, Kalekeni Kaphale, had indicated willingness to negotiate. Further, the Anti-Corruption Bureau, Public Procurement and Disposal Assets Authority (PPDA) and Fiscal Police failed to establish any wrongdoing in the award of the uniforms’ contracts at the Immigration Department, suggesting that all “t”s had been crossed and “i”s dotted.

After reviewing the case, Silungwe wrote the ACB in May 2021 and accused people at ACB, Fiscal Police and PPDA of being compromised and asked the ACB to re-investigate the Immigration Department’s uniforms’ deal.This made a lot of people in the new government very uncomfortable.

As if to vindicate Silungwe, The Daily Times of 17 July 2021 headline “Kalekeni Kaphale disowns Abdul Karim’s claim” reported that Kaphale has since distanced himself from businessman Abdul Karim Batatawala’s assertion that the K53 billion claim was ever considered for an out-of-court settlement during his tenure of office.“

Companies connected to this gentleman had many business deals with government, and they were always claiming payments. I remember two concluded cases, and payment was due but not on the K53 billion claim.“This claim was not being contested at the time I left government. There was no way that it could be settled out of court because it was a complex matter involving procurement issues,” Kaphale said.

Looking at all this superficially, there are two sides.On the one hand, we have the companies which are now trying hard to avoid meeting Silungwe in court. On the other hand, we have Silungwe saying, “Bring it on, let’s meet in court!”In the middle is the money, the MK53 billion.What if I told you that there is an unseen third hand?

And that some influential folks in government want an “out of court settlement”?For them, Silungwe was standing between them and their slice of the MK53 billion. Silungwe’s uncompromising attitude and zero tolerance for corruption are the 53 billion reasons he had to go.Proof?Like in “All the President’s Men”, follow the money.

Now that the obstacle is out of the way, I can bet we will hear that this case has been quietly settled out of court. When that comes to pass as it surely will, we will return to this post and say: Quod erat demostrandum (QED). (SUNDAY TIMES)

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