BY PIJ REPORTER
A law firm belonging to former Justice Minister Samuel Tembenu is withholding over K660 million awarded by a court to the National Oil Company of Malawi (NOCMA) after the state-owned company terminated the company’s contract for external legal services.
According to information sourced by PIJ, the Commercial Court ordered construction multinational Mota Engil to pay a sum of K3 billion for non-payment of fuel acquired on credit. Tembenu’s law firm, Tembenu, Kilembe and Company (previously known as Tembenu, Masumbu and Company), was representing NOCMA then, as an external legal services provider.
Following an arbitration process, Mota Engil paid the K3 billion to the law firm, according to a payment plan agreed upon with the company, reportedly, allowing payments in instalments.
The law firm paid the whole 3 billion kwacha, but the settlement of the debt included interest fees which had accumulated to K660 million kwacha, according to NOCMA’s officials. At around the same time the law firm was supposed to surrender the K660 million kwacha, NOCMA terminated the services of Tembenu, Masumbu and company.
The move coincided with a change of power from the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration, under which Tembenu served as Justice Minister, to the Tonse administration.
Tembenu served as Justice Minister from 2014 to 2020.
Samuel Tembenu (Right) served as Malawi’s Justice Minister from 2014 to 2020 under former president Peter Mutharika (LEFT).
The PIJ was unable to find the reasons for the termination of the said contract.
But according to officials at NOCMA, the law firm invoiced NOCMA legal bill amounting to K90 million. The amount was disputed by NOCMA officials who argued that one of the billed services, purported legal advice, was never carried out by the law firm. (PIJ reached out to representatives of the law firm, but did not respond to our questions on the matter.)
According to NOCMA, instead of withholding the K90 million, it alleged to be owed by NOCMA, the law firm decided to hold the whole K600 million which was supposed to be sent to NOCMA in five instalments.
Attorney General Thabo Nyirenda confirmed in an interview he was aware but could not immediately say whether the move constituted lawbreaking, referring PIJ to officials at NOCMA for details of the matter.
“Yes, I can confirm I am aware of this matter,” said Nyirenda
Speaking in an interview, NOCMA acting CEO Reuben confirmed the development, saying the law firm has now agreed to settle the matter through dialogue.
“Tembenu and Masumbu were our legal retainers. We had problems up to the point that we really had to part ways. Mota Engil was getting diesel on credit and had a huge debt. It reached up to three billion kwacha. They told us they couldn’t pay us then, because they were also waiting for the government to pay them, so we went to the point where we said the two were mutually exclusive,” said Reuben.
When contacted for comment, Tembenu, who is managing partner in the private practice law firm, said he could not comment on the matter, citing lawyer and client confidentiality.
“We cannot discuss the specifics of this issue at this stage. However, we shall be engaging with our Client and once our engagement with them is finalized, we shall, while respecting the confidential nature of our relationship with the Client, be in a position to comment on the matter at an appropriate date in the near future,” said Tembenu.
When contacted, Mota Engil Spokesperson Thomas Chafunya refused to comment on the matter when requested for comment, as we sought confirmation that the company paid the funds to Tembenu’s company.
“Mota Engil does not comment on matters of other organizations and their interactions with the legal house that represents them,” said Chafunya.
The development comes amid various cases of abuse of public funds by public officials, often working in the practice of public firms. Management of state enterprises such as NOCMA, in particular, has been rocked for years by abuse with various procurements of services and goods marked by inflated contracts sums, bribery, kickbacks and outright embezzlement.
The revelations further come amid changes at NOCMA and a war of words between outgoing CEO Helen Buluma and senior officials of the Tonse administration.
The Platform for Investigative Journalism is an independent non-profit centre for investigative journalism.