It is indisputable that cross-border truck drivers play an important role in the development of land-locked Malawi. But they face a myriad of challenges that government has been paying a deaf ear to as our contributor GEORGE NTONYA found out in this investigation:
After two years of moving in circles to have their grievances addressed by the government, the country’s truck drivers—some of whom haul petroleum products and other imports from the ports of Beira and Dar es Salaam— have finally decided to seek the intervention of President Lazarus Chakwera.
The truck drivers complain of poor working conditions. Many of them are recruited by word of mouth. They do not have proper contracts and their salaries are low. Yet, they take care of property worth millions of kwacha. Whenever the truck is involved in an accident, some owners recover part of the maintenance costs from their salaries and subsistence allowances.
“When a head lamp gets broken after hitting an animal on the road, for example, the truck owner deducts some money from the allowance. The same applies if thieves steal some items from the truck while in transit,” laments Hamis Imedi Amasi in an interview in Lilongwe.
Amasi, 42, has been a truck driver since 2013. In June 2015, he was involved in a road accident in Mozambique. He was evacuated back home and spent months in hospital, having sustained head injuries.
“What surprised me was that I was told to pay K2.7 million to the company I was working for as compensation in respect of the money the company [name withheld] had spent to repair the truck,” he says.
“Life has been tough for me because I was deducted money from my monthly salary and allowances until mid-2020 when the K2.7 million was fully recovered,” he adds.
Fo r e i g n i n v e s t o rs and Malawians of Asian descent dominate the transport sector, players say.
According to Professional Drivers Union of Malawi (Produm) secretary general Mphatso Molleni, Malawi is losing a lot of forex because of its preference for foreign transport operators when awarding contracts. Many of the foreign operators, he says, externalise their earnings.
Some of these business people own more than one company. They work as a cartel, rendering indigenous truck operators as peripheral sub-contractors.
An indigenous truck owner who opted for anonymity agreed with Molleni that government could save a lot of forex if it empowered indigenous transport operators. Ridding the public sector of unpatriotic ci v i l servants is also important.
“Many people say t h a t commodity prices are higher in our country compared to other countries in the region because our transport charges are high. This is not entirely true,” the local transport operator says.
“The issue is that there are a lot of middle-men who cut home huge commissions,” he says.
Government contracting entities are to blame for this, players in the sector opine. Whenever there is a contract to carry goods such as fuel or fertiliser for the government-sponsored subsidy programme, for example, the cartels have an edge over the indigenous operators because they have the muscle to palm oil the unpatriotic officials responsible for awarding such contracts.
“If government cut out the dobadobas [midd le-men] transport costs could come down and the government could save a lot of money,” the operator says.
In August last year, State-owned National Oil Company of Malawi (Nocma) ignited debate which lends credence to people’s perception that underhand dealings really take place in the fuel supply chain, much to the disadvantage of the country’s already fragile economy.
In the same month, the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) arrested former minister of Energy Newton Kambala, President Chakwera’s aide Chris Chaima Banda and Alliance for Democracy (Aford) president Enock Chihana over allegations of attempted corrupt dealings at Nocma. The allegations are yet to be proved in court and the three are out on bail.
Since then, Attorney General Thabo Chakaka Nyirenda has been on overdrive, cracking the whip on corruption suspects. He recently debarred several companies from doing business with the government due to allegations of corrupt practices.
Even after staging a series of strikes, resulting at one point in an interruption of fuel supply in the country, the truck drivers seem to have been fed half-truths each time they met government officials to discuss their grievances.
“It is against this background that we write to the President, through your good office, seeking an opportunity for a round-table audience with the State President so that our grievances are brought to his direct attention,” reads, in part, a letter from Produm, delivered to the Secretary to the President and Cabinet Zanga- Zanga Chikhosi.
It is almost certain that the issues will not come to a logical conclusion any time soon. The truck drivers will have to endure the pain of waiting as Samuel Kaisa explains: “I have worked as a truck driver for 11 years but I have nothing to show.
“I don’t even have a hut to call home. I am struggling to send my child to school.”All cross-border truck drivers interviewed also complain of mistreatment when they travel to the ports to carry goods
“Generally, we take long to load, yet our subsistence allowance is not dependent on the number of days we stay there,” Joseph Balakasi, a tanker driver, says in an interview at a truck park in Beira, Mozambique.
“Many of us have been here for over a month waiting for a release order and whenever we ask for explanations for our delay, we don’t get convincing answers,” Balakasi says.
Sometimes the tanker drivers stay in Beira up to three months without loading the fuel. Reasons for this vary.
At the time of my visit to Beira in October 2021, Lawrence Ng’omba, another tanker driver, had been there for three months already. He did not know the day of his departure, either.
“I am going to clock four months here in Beira shortly,” he said.
Elias Manda, another tanker driver, reinforced claims of mistreatment in Mozambique.
“When we go to the port to load fuel, some customs officers ask for money for us to be able to collect the release order,” he said. “I have been driving a tanker for almost 15 years and I have been paying the money from my allowances.”
A release order is a document or set of documents which the truck drivers use as confirmation that they have been cleared to carry the goods.
“Instead of spending our subsistence allowance on food, we give part of it to traffic police officers to avoid being delayed,” Alfred Mkwinja, who was on his way to offload tobacco in Beira, said at a place called Mazoe.
According to him, the truck drivers keep wads of Meticais— the Mozambican currency—“to buy their way” from traffic police in that country, even in cases where an offence has not been committed.
“If I don’t pay up when an officer asks for money, that police officer may look for any defect on the truck so that I pay an exorbitant fine,” he said.
This is common practice between Calomue Border Post and Tete, the drivers claimed.
“When they tell you to give them money, you just have to oblige; otherwise, they can delay you unnecessarily,” Stan Ndekha corroborated.
Mozambique Embassy in Lilongwe did not respond to such allegations when contacted.
“PIL (Petroleum Importers Limited) and the government are aware of these issues. They should investigate and find solutions,” Manda said.
Beira port is situated some 1 194 kilometres (km) from Li longwe and 846km from Blantyre. Usually, it takes two days for the truck drivers to cover the distance. Throughout the journey, the truck drivers spend nights in their trucks.
They cook their own food in many instances. They are their own guards at night.
“We make sure that we have everything to be able to prepare our own food because sometimes we have a breakdown at a place which is far from restaurants or houses,” Ali Majawa, who sometimes commutes between Beira and Lilongwe three times in a month, said in an interview at a place called Inchope.
Until mid-2021 the tanker drivers had to find parking space on their own while waiting for their turn to load at the port. Now, there is an official truck park, situated about 15km from the port. But the drivers are not happy with its status.
There is an open pit latrine, made of a concrete ring and blocks with a corrugated iron sheet serving as a door. The park is partly fenced and too small for the tankers. There are no floodlights, either.
“We encounter snakes here,” Joseph Balakasi laments. “We draw water from a shallow well.” It is indisputable that the cross-border truck drivers play an important role in the development of land-locked Malawi. Hopefully, their request for the office of the President and Cabinet to address their concerns will bear fruit.