High profile business magnet – First Discount House (FDH) Bank founder and major shareholder – Thom Mpinganjira, was, to the shock of the Malawi nation, arrested on 20 January 2020. Mpinganjira had allegedly attempted to bribe the 5-member panel of judges who presided over the presidential election nullification case. Using statements, the judges provided to the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), investigative journalist Golden Matonga unveils how the judges claim they rejected bags stashed with millions in bribe money to deliver justice.
The five judges of the constitutional court— Healy Potani, Redson Kapindu, Ivy Kamanga, Dingiswayo Madise and Mike Tembo—were enjoying a good meal at Ufulu Gardens Hotel in Lilongwe when the call they all had dreaded came through.
They glanced at each other and silently nodded in agreement that the recipient of the call—Justice Potani—the judge president and head of the panel of judges hearing the presidential elections case—should take it .
The judges, out of the sensitivity of the high-profile case, the first in Malawi’s history and its attached security risks had closed themselves from the outside world.
And Justice Potani had warned his colleagues, according to official statement he gave to the corruption busting body, that he was suspicious already of the impending call.
He had been warned, that the businessman was desperately looking for him. Over lunch, he had relayed the message to the fellow panelist judges. They had their suspicions but due to the high stature and respect the caller commanded in the business sector, they reluctantly agreed it would be best if they heard him out.
In his statement, Justice Potani speaks of how Mpinganjira “desperately hunted for him for a meeting” which, he said, he dodged.
With blessings of the other member judges, however, Justice Potani says he entertained Mpinganjira’s call once for five minutes on October 9, 2019, when he (Potani) was told that the business mogul had “a parcel” for him.
“He told me he sent a parcel to me for a project through another judge [from the Supreme Court]. He (Mpinganjira) said he was advised by some of the people he was working with to approach me as chairperson [of the five-judge panel],” Potani told ACB in the statement.
And he continued: “I was puzzled, disturbed and confused. I wanted to get more information. I told him (Mpinganjira) that I was in Lilongwe and he said he would fly from Blantyre the next day to meet me to deliver the parcel. But I quickly told him not to.”
Justice Potani then briefed the other four judges on the panel about his conversation with the business mogul that lasted about five minutes and “Due to the sensitivity of the matter, the panel resolved to report the matter to the Chief Justice.”
All this time, Potani recorded the time of the conversation, some of which was via WhatsApp calls and the phone numbers used.
According to the information ACB received, Mpinganjira, acting on behalf of the ruling Democratic People’s Party (DPP)—had told the judge that the ruling party had disbursed cash amounting to K100 million by October 2019 for the five judges to share.
Mpinganjira mentioned a top-ranked DPP official (name withheld) as the conduit to deliver the stash of money to the five judges and the said party official had told his DPP colleagues that he was handing over the money to the judges through Supreme Court Justice, Lovemore Chikopa (whom the ACB has since cleared of any wrongdoing.)
Justice Potani and the rest of the judges deny ever receiving any of the money.
The story is collaborated by a statement by another member of the panel of judges, Justice Tembo, who in a separate statement, told the ACB that, Mpinganjira had sent him a WhatsApp text asking him to provide contact details for Justice Potani.
Justice Tembo’s statement suggests that he agonized over the request to disclose Justice Potani’s phone number but eventually gave in and shared the contacts as he, and in trust, had attended the same church with Mpinganjira in Blantyre since 2010.
He then briefed his colleagues about the conversation and Justice Potani chipped in adding that Mpinganjira, had actually also called him on October 9, 2019 claiming that he was working on a “project” with some judges and lawyers.
Justice Tembo said Mpinganjira then had told him that lawyers for the respondents in the case (incumbent President Peter Mutharika and Malawi Electoral Commission) were also drawing additional cash purportedly to share with the judges.
It was precisely because of the “suspicious” conduct of the lawyers, according to Justice Tembo’s statement, that Mpinganjira indicated he was approaching the judges.
One of lead lawyers for the respondents, according to Justice Tembo’s recollection of Mpinganjira’s words, had drawn millions of kwacha claiming he was going to pay his colleagues in the legal team, but the other lawyers confided that they did not receive anything from him.
Said Justice Tembo: “He [Mpinganjira] told me that the [‘parcels’] ‘project’ was known in the [ruling] DPP leadership, including the principal [President Mutharika].”
Justice Tembo said he asked Mpinganjira why DPP, with a competent team of lawyers, was engaging in attempts to bribe the judges and the business mogul responded: “DPP never rigged the election. DPP was involved in giving cash because there was suspicion that the petitioners were [similarly] mobilizing and being funded by the Indian community to do the same.”
Justice Tembo said in their conversation, that Mpinganjira and he were amazed at how the people allegedly involved were operating like the “mafia” and when Justice Tembo rejected the offer, Mpinganjira changed his statement, suggesting that he was not offering the judges a bribe but a ‘loan from his bank to help them like any other members of the society’.
Mpinganjira, also had another grip of moral scruple, according to Justice Tembo. He regretted to have spoken to Justice Tembo at all, as many had warned Mpinganjira, according to Tembo’s statement that he, [Justice Tembo] was a difficult man, as he was a man of faith.
Months later, Mpinganjira, one of the richest Malawians was to be arrested on the bribery charges and Justices Potani, Tembo and the other three judges, were to arrive at the High Court in Lilongwe, wearing bullet vests and under military escort and delivered the most unprecedented ruling in modern Malawi. The ruling nullified the May 21, 2019 presidential elections and ordered fresh elections.