BY GOLDEN MATONGA & GREGORY GONDWE
Embattled Secretary to President and Cabinet, Colleen Zamba, lobbied, cajoled and pressured the state-owned National Oil Company of Malawi (NOCMA) to grant contracts to suppliers under the guise of the country’s prevailing fuel emergency in an alleged unorthodox manner that defied procurement procedures.
Long before any agreement had been reached, the hand-picked suppliers had already drafted contracts, documents, and correspondences obtained by Platform for Investigative Journalism can reveal.
Curiously, since several of the suppliers referred to NOCMA by Zamba or the ministers had already drafted contracts, it left NOCMA, as the procuring entity, with the option of simply rubber-stamping the deals.
Numerous meetings were held to appear to legitimize the decision, and the declaration of a fuel crisis was used as an excuse to ensure the process received legitimacy.
The cache of documents confirms details already provided to parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) by NOCMA’s former deputy Chief Executive Officer and de facto CEO Hellen Buluma and offers the full extent to which Secretary to President and Cabinet (SPC) pressured the state oil company to award contracts to new suppliers.
Refusal to succumb to pressure to grant the contracts eventually led to the decision to fire Buluma as NOCMA’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer and de facto CEO.
The government has sought to characterize the removal of Buluma as a result of respect for the Ombudsman’s decision that declared her hiring by the previous Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration as irregular, but the documents that reveal desperate attempts by the administration’s most senior civil servants seeking to pressure Buluma to hire their preferred suppliers to suggest something different.
The government has further sought to characterize its interventions at NOCMA as all lawful and necessary in wake of the fuel crisis the country is facing, but the documents, minutes of meetings, interviews, and text messages sourced by the PIJ show that a specific list of suppliers appears to have been predetermined by the Zamba.
The documents show companies such as 700 SA Oil and Gas, fronted by a man identified in Buluma’s parliamentary inquiry testimony as the Chief, issued Full Corporate Offers (FCOs) to NOCMA and presented them through the SPCs before NOCMA had advertised a call for expressions of interest.
On 10 October 2022, 700 SA Oil and Gas, which indicated in documents it is based in Modderforntein in South Africa, issued its FCO to NOCMA to supply 40 000 MT of petrol per month at $930 for three months at a total cost of $111, 600 000 (around 134 billion kwacha.)
According to procurement laws, FCOs are supposed to be issued by vendors after the preliminary stage of negotiation is complete, such as a letter of intent having been conducted on their accounts by the vendor.
Exchanges with the Chief
According to Buluma, the chain of events started when SPC Zamba invited her for a meeting at Capital Hill on the morning of 26th October.
“Board Chairperson in one of our meetings advised that someone by the name of Chief will get in touch and send through a full Corporate Offer for fuel supply and that I should quickly work on offer i.e. make it happen ASAP so that he can get an allocation from the BADEA facility which was soon to be approved,” Buluma told PIJ in an interview.
At a meeting, which was held at the Office of President and Cabinet (OPC) boardroom, Zamba called the Chief on her mobile phone and asked him to call Buluma while she was in her presence.
(Chief had attempted to reach Buluma over the phone several times, but she had ignored him, Buluma told PIJ.)
Later, SPC also advised Buluma to provide the Chief with the country’s specifications and requirements for fuel and diesel. Chief’s company, 700 SA Oil and Gas, sent its Full Corporate Offer (FCO) two days later on 28th October 2022.
When PIJ searched for Chief’s name using his phone number, Truecaller, an application used to find names of phone users, identified Chief as Obi Amuchienwa from Nigeria. Social media search offers a little clue on who he is. We were not able to reach the Chief for comment on the phone before going to press.
A man bearing the same name, Obi Amuchienwa, is listed as a bank debtor at Nigeria’s Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) (someone who failed to repay his loan at a commercial bank), according to a record sourced by the PIJ. He took the loan from Platinum Habib Bank. The PIJ could not immediately verify if the named official is the same representative of the oil company referred to as Chief.
PIJ has sourced WhatsApp text messages that later show Zamba pressuring Buluma for updates on procuring fuel from a particular supplier, the Chief. At the time, NOCMA had just accessed the new facility from Badea to help finance fuel procurement. Previously, the country had struggled to access
Zamba, in one particular text, said she wanted the contract for the chief drafted before NOCMA finished all slots for suppliers.
On Tuesday 8th November, Zamba wrote Buluma, sounding a bit desperate for the deal to go through:
“Za chief zijatu adona. (where are we on Chief’s deal). Please time is moving and facility muyamba kumaliza kugawa apa (you will end up giving out all the contracts) while we are still talking,” she wrote at 8.43 am.
Zamba, in another exchange, appears to name-drop the President’s name to put pressure on Buluma to give contracts to the Chief. (There is little evidence that the President had anything to do with the Chief deal, particularly, or any of the companies preferred by the SPC or Ministers. In her testimony to parliament, Buluma also said the President was not involved)
She added: “My dear, just briefed HE on today’s position. He is concerned about ques (sic) akuti kodi tipeza atatha (he says we find the queues over?). I said we are doing our best.”
She also texted Buluma the following day on 9th November 2022 at 3.56 pm: “Where are we Chief FCO? There is need to respond ASAP. Cannot have this week lapse. Have proper documents be done (sic).”
The chief, himself, also made several phone and text appeal to Buluma asking for the contract to be granted.
In some texts, the chief was even dictating actions NOCMA should take following the company’s drafting of FCO; ordering NOCMA to acknowledge and sign for documents, give the company the name of the banks to be used in the agreement and even giving a deadline of the end of November for all preparations for the contract to be completed.
After Buluma provided the position of the law on the matter, Chief acknowledged that FCOs are only issued after the procuring entity has issued an LPO (Local Purchasing Order) to the supplier, but insisted the company was acting in good faith. “We understand perfectly the due process of government, and we have spoken to give you clarifications, and will cooperate in any way further as required by the law. However, time is of the essence, and we need to know where we stand on this,” Chief wrote on 10th November.
The Chief grew increasingly frustrated as Buluma evaded taking action. He erupted in another text: “Helen, I have always appreciated and taken into consideration your schedule. I have been waiting since morning for your promised call back/update. I am accountable to my people, and this is two weeks down the line. Not happy with this treatment, sincerely. We are trying to assist and work with you to ensure seamless supply and less headaches. Pls get in touch and update me as to when we will receive the order. Thanks.”
Zamba could not pick up her phone when called on numerous occasions, as PIJ sought to hear her side of the story. We sent her questions through WhatsApp’s social media communication platform; she only read them and did not respond.
Buluma’s previous allegations of interference in NOCMA led to the arrests of senior government officials in the Tonse Administration. Former Energy Minister Newton Kambala, Aford President Enoch Chihana and Presidential Advisor Chris Chaima Banda. Buluma is a key witness for the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) in the corruption trial against the three.
The Platform for Investigative Journalism is an independent non-profit centre for investigative journalism.