Your word against mine, no witnesses. That seems to be the story between the police and some businesspeople at Nselema in Machinga and Ndirande in Blantyre.
At the centre of it all are illegal fuel transactions, corruption and extortion allegationsâ€”which recently led to the Machinga businesspeople writing an open letter to various authorities including the media, claiming the law-enforcers have been demanding bribes from the entrepreneurs for them to continue with their illicit trade.
In the legal world, there is also this popular dictum: “He who comes into equity must come with clean hands.” Have the businesspeople done the needful, for example, taking the matter to the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) for an investigation?
Some Nselema Trading Centre and Ndirande Township businesspeople recently cried foul, claiming they are helplessly being ripped off by some Malawi Police Service (MPS) officers. The entrepreneurs claim the officers know the â€˜victimsâ€™ cannot complain anywhere owing to the illegal nature of their trade: selling fuel without licence from the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera).
Nselema is about 70 kilometres north-east of Liwonde and about 110 kilometres south-east of Mangochi. The road to Nselema, the Bakili Muluzi Highway, passes through Ntaja. Both these centres are near the Malawi-Mozambique eastern border.
This off-town location, according to the businesspeople, has led to the growth of the illegal fuel trade around Nselema, as has been the case countrywide especially since Malawi started experiencing fuel shortages.
During recent interviews with The Nation after authoring their letter, the businessmen argued theirs is lesser evil than the malpractices of “corrupt and ungrateful” police officers who are squeezing the people dry.
The businesspeople claimed that some Nselema Police officers confiscate fuel from the traders or each time demand bribes in the ranges of K15 000 (about $60) to K20 000 (about $80).
But knowing they have no clean hands with which “to claim equity” given the illegality of their trade, the businesspeople said the police corruption is killing the entrepreneurs silently as they keep coughing the money or giving up their merchandise altogether.
According to the interviews, the Nselema businesspeople, even before the fuel crisis hit Malawi, have been buying fuel in Mozambique through Chiponde Border Post in Mangochi and bringing it to Machingaâ€™s popular trading centres of Ntaja and Nselema where there are no fuel pumps.
The traders confessed that they play all tricks in the book to beat the system, including crossing the border illegally, to bring the gasoline to Malawi.
They claimed some police officers, along the way, â€˜understand the traders situationâ€™ and accept kickbacks to give way.
But Nselema Police officer-in-charge (OC) Joel Nakoma, who has only been at the station for less than six monthsâ€”having been transferred from Mwanza Police Station, vehemently disputed the bribery allegations.
He argued traders in the area are simply upset that their honeymoon is over since his posting to Nselema.
Nakoma told The Nation that since his arrival at Nselema, he has sealed all the loopholes to bring down the illegal business and the businessmen are not comfortable with his zealous approach to the crackdown.
The OC argued that illegal businesspeople who had their fuel confiscated were not immediately taken to court because of the recent Judiciary strike, just as was the case for most crimes committed in the area. But Nakoma said police are now ready with the cases and the matters are being taken to court. He denied pocketing any bribe or hearing about any officers indulging in the same.
But the traders claimed it is an open secret that officers at Nselema demand bribes and use the fuel they confiscate.
Saidi Bannet, a minibus call-boy at Nselema, claimed in an interview he and many of his colleagues were forced out of the illegal fuel business because of seizures and high demand of bribes by the police.
Said Bannet: “We were actually selling fuel openly at this market [Nselema Trading Centre] because there is no filling station here. But we have been closely followed for the past three months by the police, who demand bribes. Some of us could not sustain the business.
“We know the business is illegal, but what can people do? There is not even a single service station here. When I was into the fuel business, there were times even the police could buy fuel from the black market, but they would one day wake up and pounce on us, surprisingly.”
In their letter, the Nselema traders state case by case and with names of colleagues that had their fuel confiscated during the month of January and what transpired.
Among the cases, there is one on bags of fertiliser that police wanted to seize from one businessperson.
All the businesspersons, except Bannet who claimed he was forced out of business, declined to speak on record for fear of reprisals when The Nation approached them at Nselema. But they owned the letter in its entirety.
In the letter, the businesspersons alleged that three officers, on the night of January 14 2012, confiscated fuel from one of them (name withheld) at Nangapoche Trading Centre.
The letter alleges that the officers ordered that 20 litres be refuelled in a police vehicle and demanded a K20 000 bribe. The concerned businessperson only managed to pay K15 000 (about $60).
The letter also claims that on January 16 2012 around 4 pm, the same three officers, allegedly using the OCâ€™s personal vehicle, a Toyota Mark II, approached one of the businesspersons (name withheld) at his house at Nselema where they found 12 bags of Urea fertiliser. According to the letter, the officers demanded K20 000 (about $80) but were given K15 000 and left.
The businessperson also claimed hat on January 17 2012 at night, the three officers intercepted a vehicle, a Ford, which carried 22 20-litre containers of diesel belonging to a businessman (name withheld) based at Ntaja and nine 20-litre containers of petrol belonging to another businessman at Nselema.
They claimed the fuel was confiscated and they were told the matter was going to be taken to court, but the one who had the diesel, â€˜palm-oiledâ€™ the officers with K15 000 and had 16 containers of diesel out of 22 returned to him.
The businessmen alleged the matter has never been to court and the nine containers of the petrol were never returned.
But Nakoma insisted that the police are working on the files to take the matter to court.
In a later interview, national police spokesperson Davie Chingwalu defended the Nselema police officers, arguing that MPS provides its officers with fuel and there is no way police could confiscate fuel and use it or buy fuel on black market as alleged by the businesspersons.
Meanwhile, in Ndirande, some police sources disclosed that Ndirande Police knows where illegal fuel business is transacted in the township, but officers do not act because the businesspersons have managed to corrupt them.
But Blantyre Police Station spokesperson Yona Thembachako, just like Chingwalu who dismissed the Nselema case as untrue, rubbished the Ndirande reports as untrue, too; arguing when police seize fuel sold illegally, it uses it as exhibit in court and there is a process the illegal fuel is disposed.
â€”Nselema has no fuel station; the nearest supply point is in Mozambique, through Chiponde Border Post about 30 kilometres away.
â€”The storing of fuel and dealing in the business without a licence from the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority is a criminal offence punishable by a fine or imprisonment.