They are organised, sophisticated and quick to connect clients to the national grid. They use Escom branded vehicles, uniforms and documents to convince clients they are the real deal.
But they are not Escom. Rather, they are called ‘Escom Two’ and are an illegal electricity connector.
The real Escom is aware of their illegal operations in the capital city and neighbouring districts but it has so far failed to stop them despite the millions it loses in revenue.
Weekend Nation investigations established that ‘Escom Two’ is a parallel syndicate that has taken advantage of the inefficiencies, red tape and corruption within the monopolistic official Escom to make millions of kwachas, by connecting several areas to power.
It is headed by a man that both the police and Escom have identified as Mike Nyirongo, a former employee of the parastatal. According to people with deep knowledge of the group, Nyirongo is “untouchable” even by police where, they claim, he has powerful friends.
A well-placed Escom source said last week that police have arrested Nyirongo “several times” in connection with the illegal connections, but almost immediately, he walks home a free man on police bail.
Police have admitted that the man jumps bail and that they are now looking for him.
In areas where he has done power connections, people have told Escom that he presented himself as a senior Escom official who was accompanied by staff wearing Escom uniform and driving a vehicle with Escom registration.
Sources within Escom said Nyirongo once worked for the company in the construction department where he was trained in power connections, but has now trained other people who work for him.
One senior Escom officer said so far, ‘Escom Two’ has done illegal connections in Salima, Mchinji, Nkhotakota and Lilongwe.
The source said Nyirongo takes advantage of the delays by Escom to effect new connections.
It takes an average of two years for Escom to process an application for power connection.
Said the Escom source: “He knows the system because he has worked in Escom. Sometimes, we have processed applications and when we go to the area to do the connection, we get surprised that it is already connected.
“When you ask, we hear that a big boss from Escom, Mike Nyirongo, and sometimes Mike Banda has connected us.”
For example, said our source, one customer in Lilongwe paid Nyirongo K2.2 million and a community in the outskirts of the city paid K2.4 million for these illegal connections.
Because these connections are not captured in the Escom system, the parastatal does not collect any tariffs from them, according to Escom spokesperson Kitty Chingota.
Sometimes ‘Escom Two’ pockets the money, but never connects people, says a source in Escom’s security unit.
At least 17 prospective Escom customers of Kampini Trading Centre in Mitundu, Lilongwe, paid K2 million to Escom Two but never got connected.
‘Escom Two’ is a massive talking point within Escom and there is hot debate at the parastatal on whether they should go public and alert people about the group.
According to internal communications within Escom about the group, one officer says although Escom security has in the past apprehended Nyirongo and handed him to police, it was surprising that he is let scot-free.
“We don’t seem to be getting strong support from our law enforcement officers in as far as arresting the key suspect, Mike Nyirongo, is concerned. We are spending a lot of money trying to have him arrested when the appropriate authorities are sitting by and watching,” says the officer in an e-mail we have seen addressed to fellow Escom officials.
Another officer noted that Nyirongo has been arrested on several occasions but is surprised that he does not spend more than two days in police custody.
At one point, Escom security personnel arrested Nyirongo and handed him over to police but before the company could make a written submission for a case, the suspect was already out of custody.
“It has become apparent that this man has very good connections within Escom and police. Whenever there is a discussion within Escom to take some action, he is alerted and he sometimes phones members of staff here asking why we are pursuing him. We [are] also tempted to suspect that he has very strong connections within police because he sometimes gets released under very questionable circumstances,” said the source.
Another communication, which shows that Nyirongo is causing a headache to senior officials, says there was need to save the company’s image by sensitising the public about the activities of ‘Escom Two’.
It adds: “The Kampini issue is a very recent example yet we have had so many cases perpetrated by the same people. After all, some are already in the police’s wanted people list for absconding court bail.”
However, one Escom official worries in an e-mail that informing the public about ‘Escom Two’ and exposing police’s inability to arrest and investigate him could embarrass the police service and affect the parastatal’s relationship with it.
Escom aware of the illegal group
Chingota acknowledged the problems the parastatal has with ‘Escom Two’.
She could not say when the group started its activities, but estimate that they may have been around for five years now. She could also not establish how much Escom loses through the illegal connections.
Chingota said Escom does not feel let down by law enforcers but said the statutory body feels “frustrated that effort to have the perpetrators of such acts convicted do not bear the desired objective.”
Asked to confirm that Nyirongo may have some internal connections at Escom since most of the materials used in these illegal activities are from the company, Chingota said: “This cannot be ruled out until it is proved beyond any reasonable doubt that the suspect did not obtain these items from Escom through his accomplices.”
She also confirmed that ‘Escom Two’ sometimes uses Escom property such as uniforms and vehicle registrations. Chingota expressed worry that this is portraying a bad image of the corporation to the general public. She hoped that the police would move quickly on the group.
National Police spokesperson Rhoda Manjolo said in an e-mailed response on Thursday that investigations are underway to track down Nyirongo.
She denied claims that Nyirongo gets special treatment from police. Manjolo also confirmed that Nyirongo has been jumping bail.
“We, as police, do not know this suspect in any special way apart from knowing him as a suspect on our wanted list. Mike Nyirongo was mentioned by the suspects already arrested as an accomplice to the offence for which they are in custody as of now.
“Of course, absconding bail is an offence and that is exactly why we are hunting for him. The police cannot deliberately fail to arrest a known criminal if they encounter him anywhere. To say that he is untouchable is not true because nobody is above the law. Anyone with information which may help the police to re-arrest him is most welcome.”
Manjolo explained that the Central Region Police headquarters has for the past few weeks been working hand-in-hand with Escom officials to track down people involved in cases of illegal power connections.
These joint investigations have led to the arrest of several suspects and recovery of Escom equipment from the houses of the suspects.