January 10, 2003

Finance minister probed over sale of maize reserves

Malawi’s finance minister is expected to come under investigation for his involvement in the controversial sale of the country's strategic maize reserves just months before widespread crop failure, officials told IRIN on Monday, January 6.

With 3.3 million Malawians facing hunger, President Bakili Muluzi last week appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate the alleged mismanagement of the state-run Agriculture Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC). The commission is expected to investigate whether Finance Minister Friday Jumbe, who was then head of ADMARC, had "unduly" benefited from the sale of the maize. "Minister Jumbe is just one of the officials who will be investigated. There is to date no evidence of guilt or innocence. The commission is merely a fact-finding commission. It is our mandate to find out if Jumbe unfairly benefited personally from his involvement in the management or sale of the said maize," commission chairman Khuze Kapeta said.

Almost 160,000 mt of grain was sold from the strategic grain reserves in August 2000, of which 60,000 mt was exported to Kenya. This was after unprecedented floods earlier in the year had ravaged production. The floods, followed by drought, left Malawi with a shortfall of about 480,000 mt and made it one of the hardest hit of the six southern African countries - along with Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland and Lesotho - that are struggling to cope with their worst food emergency in recent years.

The government has blamed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for forcing it to sell at least part of the reserve in 2000 to reduce debt, an accusation denied by the IMF. The IMF's countered that Malawi sold the maize after advice from a food consultant, hired by the government in a European Union-funded project.

In August last year, former Poverty Alleviation Minister Leonard Mangulama was sacked by Muluzi for alleged corruption in the sale of the reserves. Magulama was named in an Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) report into the matter which accused him of acquiring 300 mt of maize without paying for it. It also named several parliamentarians, from both the opposition and the ruling party, who bought maize from the strategic grain reserves for resale in different markets. ACB Deputy Director, Alex Nampota, told IRIN: "We conducted our investigations in the most transparent way and our final report reflected our findings. But the fact that a commission of inquiry has been set up to further investigate the sale of the maize suggests that there are greater concerns. "The commission will hopefully satisfy those who are still worried about the sale of the reserves. It goes toward showing ordinary Malawians who are suffering that the government is doing something to be rid of corruption," Nampota said.

In a separate development, Malawi’s Ministry of Agriculture officials and local communities last week uprooted genetically modified maize (GMO) planted by some subsistence farmers in Blantyre.

Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture, Hendrina Mchiela confirmed the incident. She said communities notified the Ministry's monitoring field officers on some farmers who planted the GMO maize seeds. "We received reports that some farmers had planted GMO in Lirangwe, Mdeka and another area in Blantyre. I have forgotten its name. Our field officers went around to interview the people there about the farmers who planted GMO. The communities themselves assisted in uprooting the maize seedling and the Ministry distributed free farm inputs to the farmers as an alternative," she explained. Mchiela however, could not say how many hectares of GMO maize fields were uprooted.

Some farmers have planted GMO maize contrary to government's advice not to plant the maize to avoid environmental pollution the maize variety could cause to local maize varieties. According to reports, some farmers planted GMO maize seeds because they did not receive government's Extended Target Inputs Programme (ETIP) free farm inputs known as 'starter pack' in time while some had no maize seeds to plant at the beginning of the rainy season.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme (WFP) is moving the Genetically Modified food from Zambia to Malawi, the Southern Africa complex food security crisis situation report by the USAID has revealed. The report dated January 3, 2003 states that the WFP continues to move biotech food commodities from Zambia to Malawi following Zambian government's rejection of the biotech food assistance. "Mozambique and Malawi have expressed concerns over the environmental effects of biotech food, but are accepting such food assistance as long as it is milled before distribution," the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) stated. "However, the government of Malawi has publicly stated its intention not to disrupt the distribution of humanitarian corn if milling is not possible." (Malawi Standard / IRIN / The Post, Lusaka)

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