WHEN ELEPHANTS FIGHT

Two Rwandese businessmen were in a bitter feud. Two Malawian dead bodies ended up in a morgue, shot by police in a remote forest in Lake shore town of Salima.

Did rogue members of the Malawi Police Service, now led by Homeland Minister Jean Sendeza and Inspector General Merlyne Yolamu (pictured centre and right) commit murder or it was all lawful shooting?

BY PIJ INVESTIGATIONS

Many years before Vincent Nyongera and Emmanuel Sekanawo became bitter business rivals, they were good friends and supported each other’s business. 

But as the two Rwandese nationals’ businesses prospered, the two–who operated wholesale shops at Salima boma–grew apart. Soon, the rivalry morphed into a bitter feud that would end up costing the lives of two Malawian men, at the hands of the Malawi Police Services. 

Handcuffed, two men were shot dead in 2018 inside Thuma forest, a little-known elephant-filled reserve, some 30 kilometres off Lilongwe-Salima boma where they had earlier been arrested. 

Trouble, though, really started in 2017, a few years after Sekanawo moved his business closer to Nyongera’s at Salima Boma.

On 11th July, 2O17, Nyongera reported to Police that armed robbers had attacked him as he arrived home after the day’s business. The attackers reportedly shot him in the arm. 

Vincent Nyongera refused to give PIJ his side of the story, but in October, Sekanawo agreed to speak to us in Salima. 

According to Sekanawo, he heard about the shooting incident from a friend while going to Lilongwe to buy groceries for his shop and register his new car at the Directorate of Road Traffic Services. His own father, though, went to Nyongera’s house to console him for the misfortune, alongside a group of other traders, mostly of Rwandese origin.

Vincent proceeded to Lilongwe reckoning he would visit his peer later on. But while in Lilongwe, a man called Pascal, a mutual friend of Nyongera and Sekanawo, called him to ask about his whereabouts and whether he was aware of the shooting incident or that his fellow businessman had gathered at Nyongera’s house.

Later in the afternoon, a CID officer, identified by Sekanawo as Sukumbiri, phoned Sekanawo to report to the Police station upon arrival from Lilongwe. 

At around 4 pm, Sukumbiri called again, asking him to immediately report to the Police station. A few minutes later, another call came through, this time it was Sekanawo’s own mother with grim news: his father, who had gathered with other business people at Nyongera’s house, had been arrested by Police and would only be released when Sekanawo showed up at the Police station. The mother advised Sekanawo to get a lawyer.

The lawyer advised Sekanawo to spend the night in the capital so that they could travel together to Salima the following morning. Upon arrival at the Police station, on 13 July 2017, Sekanawo was placed under arrest, initially for attempted murder, a charge which would later be changed to causing grievous harm. His father, initially told by police that he was under arrest for conspiracy to commit murder, was later charged with conduct likely to cause breach of peace.

Later in the evening, an anti-crime team of Police officers from Lilongwe, a team nicknamed Namlondola, picked Sekanawo and took him to Lilongwe Police Station before he was remanded at Maula Prison for close to six months. 

His father had been released on Police bail after spending a few nights at Lilongwe Police Station. But while his son was in jail, Police arrested him again for allegedly conspiring to kill Nyongera again. However, up to date, neither the conduct to cause breach of peace case nor the conspiracy to commit murder charges have not been taken to court. The cases died a natural death.

But things would really take a deadly turn in 2018.

On 4th October 2018,  the same Namlondola team of Police officers came to arrest Sekanawo. According to Sekanawo, there were 11 Police officers. 

Sekanawo’s wife was expecting the couple’s second child and the businessman was about to depart for Lilongwe for business when five Police officers entered his shop and arrested him at around 12 noon. They took him to Salima Police station.

At the station, according to Sekanawo, the Officer-in-Charge said he was not aware of the reason for the arrest and asked the officers why they had arrested the businessman. The arresting officers first said they were acting on an Interpol warrant concerning Sekanawo purchasing stolen goods. The officers also twice changed the name of the senior officer who had authorized the arrest prompting the OC to ask them to ask the senior officer to call him first before they could take Sekanawo away.

 At around 1 pm, when the OC went to lunch, the Namlondola team rushed back into the station and ordered the officers to release Sekanawo to them.

“They screamed into the Police cell, Emmanuel! It’s time to go!” Sekanawo told PIJ.

They handcuffed Sekanawo with his hands at the back, an outlawed act known as nyakula, bundled him into a Land Cruiser, and started speeding for Lilongwe.

When Sekanawo’s family and friends started following the speeding Police car, the officers allegedly shot in the air to warn them away.

That day, Sekanawo alleges that he was supposed to be killed by the Police officers. Unbeknown to the businessman, the previous night, the very same team of Police officers had shot dead two Malawians allegedly for planning with Sekanawo to kill Vincent Nyongera.

As the Police Land Cruiser passed Kaphatenga Roadblock, one of the officers allegedly asked Sekanawo which church he belonged to. “If you are a believer,” the officer reportedly added, “pray your last prayers, today we are dealing with you.”

The vehicle stopped at Kanyenyeza Trading Centre and Sekanawo says he heard one of the officers suggesting that they should branch off the main road to Lilongwe and take a road to Chitala where they should kill the businessman and then take his body to Dowa Hospital and claim that he has been shot while attempting to flee.

At that stage, two police officers, carrying guns, disembarked from the car to change its number plates. 

But fate intervened. The Police officer who was sitting in the car’s front seat appeared to be talking to someone over the phone and told the others to drop the plan as something had not gone as planned. PIJ understands that at this stage, Sekanawo’s lawyer had spoken to a senior police officer at Area 30.

Back on the road, the two officers jumped back into the car and started driving toward Lilongwe. Sekanawo recalls that at a place called Maweru, at around 2 pm, he saw a car coming from Lilongwe flashing its lights at the Police car, and one of the Police officers remarked: “That’s our big man.” 

Said Sekanawo: “When I saw the car, I was shocked. ‘So the death that is coming to me it’s because of Vincent?’’ he recalled telling himself.

He said he recalls getting agitated and shouting at top of his voice. One of the Police officers slapped him with such force that he went deaf for a while. Sekanawo thinks his murder comes back on the agenda at this stage. 

After passing through Mvera Roadblock, one of the officers asked for the key for the handcuff, asked Sekanawo to sit up, and opened the back of the Land Cruiser. Sekanawo believes the plan was to shoot him and push him to the ground and present it later as a lawful shooting of a suspect attempting to flee from Police custody. 

Once again, the senior officer in front intervened, warning the others against any stupid actions. Eventually, Sekanawo arrived at Lilongwe Police Station where he was told he was once again that he was answering charges of conspiracy to commit murder. The target of the conspiracy was once again Vincent Nyongera.

Nyongera

Just one question hung in the air. Where were the other conspirators? 

Murder in The Forest?

The other alleged conspirators were actually dead. Shot by the Police. The accounts of events of 4th October 2018 surrounding the two men, Samuel Samani, a 37-year-old from Katunga Village in Dowa, and Mussa Asabi, a 36-year-old from Chimasula village, differ depending on whom you talk to. 

They had arrived in Salima that morning to have fun at the lake alongside two women, believed to be their girlfriends. Some accounts say the two men, ex-inmates at Maula Prison, had befriended Sekanawo during his earlier arrest and passed by his shop on their way to the lake. Sekanawo disputes ever meeting the two men, let alone know them.

Whichever the case, someone reported the presence of the two men to Police. And the Namlondora crack team was soon in the district, reportedly to investigate and prevent an imminent attempt to kill Nyongera. 

The Police team trailed Samani and Asabi to a lodge at Kamuzu Road in Salima. The next events are a bit unclear but a Police report later stated that both men were shot in the remote Thuma Forest, 30 kilometers from Salima while attempting to escape. 

The Police account, according to those familiar with it including Asabi’s family, is that both men confessed to the plot to assassinate Nyongera and told Police they had guns inside Thuma Forest which they would use for the job. 

But the Asabi family tells PIJ the story does not make plausible sense.

Thuma forest is a considerable distance from Salima boma. It is a very remote place with difficult terrain for anyone to think of it as a place to hide a weapon for a crime to be committed 30 kilometres away. 

The Thuma Forest Reserve, despite not being well known, is home to elephants, antelopes, and numerous other animal species.

And how could two handcuffed men, surrounded by 11 police officers, an attempt at the same time to flee?

Sekanawo believes the two were deliberately murdered. And he, too, was supposed to face the same fate.

In total, Sekanawo has been arrested four times; accused to commit murder twice without being charged. All the cases involved one alleged victim: Vincent Kanyongera. His father has been arrested on an attempted murder charge, only for the state to charge him with conduct likely to cause breach of peace. 

Thuma Forest Reserve in Salima: Police say two would-be assassins were hiding guns here and were shot dead while trying to escape. 

Don’t Ask, Don’t tell

When Sekanawo was dragged to court to answer conspiracy charges, the judge was not told about any supposed would-be co-conspirators of Sekanawo or let alone the fact that by then, their bodies had more than overspent their welcome in the morgue at Salima District Hospital where the police dumped the bodies without any instructions on burial or further arrangements. 

Due to the absence of the co-conspirators, the judge asked the police to amend the conspiracy to commit murder charge as a conspiracy cannot happen by one person.

“They never told the court or us that there were other people accused of being in the conspiracy,” Sekanawo’s lawyer Gilbert Khonyangwa told PIJ.

Of course, eventually, Khonyongwa, unofficially, learned about the killed supposed co-conspirators. Khonyongwa, Sekanawo, and the family of Asebi have all been left wondering why the court was not told about the would-be conspirators or if indeed they had planned to carry out a murder on behalf of Sekanawo, or, if they were shot at lawfully for attempting to escape, why was their death kept a secret.

So secretive were the Police about the shooting in Thuma Forest that Asebi’s family says they were never informed of his killing until months after the event, by a family friend living in Salima who had chanced on a rumour of Asedi’s killing. (PIJ was unable to track down Samani’s family).

“We were told that our brother was killed by Police while he was attempting to kill someone in Salima and that the person who sent him was in Lilongwe at Area 3 Police Station, that’s when we started following up and learned that he had been killed months earlier,” said Asedi’s younger brother Ishmael Mussa. 

That is when the family followed up on the matter and learned of the bitter feud between Sekanawo and Nyongera, and how it cost their kinsman’s life.

Despite accusing Sekanawo of conspiracy to commit murder and subsequently charging him in court, Police did not mention who the other conspirators were. This was despite Police arresting Asabi and Samani and recording their statements before taking them to Thunga Forest where they allegedly shot them while attempting to flee.

“After he [my client] was granted bail, the case has not gone anywhere else,” added Khonyongwa. 

No Longer At Ease

Nyongera refused to speak to PIJ or respond to our written questions.

“Do not ask me any questions, ask Emmanuel or the Police. I do not know anything,” Nyongera said when contacted for comment.

According to a Police report on the incident dated 3rd September 2022 authored by Blessings Phiri, the Head of the Professional Standards Unit, the incident occurred on 4th October 2018 at around 10 pm inside Thuma Forest. The police shot the victims as “they were allegedly freed from the hands of the Police officers.”

Pictures seen by PIJ show that Asebi was shot close to the shoulder and the bullet penetrated his chest. It suggests that he was shot at close range and not at the back, as is often the case when a person is fleeing.

PIJ did not see pictures of the other victims’ bullet penetration. Both victims however appear to have been severely beaten prior to their deaths, with Asebi’s face swollen.

We asked Police headquarters for comment but a spokesperson said the office was still searching for information on the incident due to the period of the incident. 

“On this issue, as you might be aware, the issue happened in 2018. I am consulting to give correct and up-to-date information. With the passing of time, some officers have moved about on transfers,” said Peter Kalaya, the National Police Spokesperson. He did not provide any further comment.

Some of the Police officers named by Sekanawo to have been part of the team that sought to kill him, appear on the list of Police officers implicated in the murder of Buleya Lule, a person who was accused of murdering Goodson Makanjira, a person of albinism. (For legal reasons, PIJ will not publish the names of the Police officers).

The Independent Complaints Commission (ICC), a constitutional body established to investigate abuses by the police, is now investigating the incident. Several Police officers who were implicated in the matter have since been interviewed, as well as Sekanawo, plus members of the victims’ families.

“We received a complaint and opened a file on the matter. It is under investigation. We are investigating an allegation that the two were murdered by the Police. Our investigators, including a firearms expert, are on the case,” ICC Director Chris Tukula, told PIJ in a written response.

The report is due in two months, but even before ICC receives a coroner’s report, medical reports on the death of the two have aroused suspicions.

 “Currently, we have not conclusively identified the firearms that may have been used. We don’t have the Coroner’s report yet but have detected some strange developments in the processing of the medical records of the deceased.

If the investigation proves that the Police officers murdered the two suspects, it would not be the first time police officers have been accused of extrajudicial killings. As previously reported by PIJ, for decades, several suspicious deaths of inmates have been blamed on Police targeted killings. Some Police officers, as in the case of Buleya Lule, have gone on to be tried in court, but many are left scot-free, and often, linked to further murders. 

The Platform for Investigative Journalism (PIJ) is an independent non-profit Centre for Investigative Journalism. If you have complaints about abuses, corruption, or any misconduct by the Police, please get in touch with the Independent Complaints Commission (ICC), a government agency responsible for investigating Police misconduct.