Josephine Chinele

Malawi | Middle-man in tea plantations pay-outs acquitted of fraud

In a court case involving damage claims paid out to victims of sexual abuse on Malawi’s tea plantations, well-known Malawian NGO figure Godfrey Mfiti has been acquitted of fraud charges.  The Blantyre Magistrate’s court cleared Mfiti of swindling compensation money from victims on grounds that the state failed to prove his wrongdoing beyond reasonable doubt.

In an earlier article, ZAM detailed how Jacqueline Makiyi, one of 36 women who received a damage pay-out from their former employer, Eastern Produce Malawi (EPM), through its mother company Camellia and fellow tea companies Linton Park Plc and Robertson Bois Dickson Anderson Limited, sued Mfiti for taking almost her entire payment of US$15,000. According to statements presented by Makiyi and a lawyer allocated to her by the London-based law firm Leigh Day, which had sued the tea companies on behalf of the victims, Mfiti had assisted Makiyi and other women to withdraw their pay-out money from the bank, but had been less than transparent with regard to its use. According to the fraud charges Makiyi brought, she had seen very little from her US$15,000.

Having hoped for her own small house, which she would have been able to afford to build with her pay-out (with a good amount left over), Makiyi and a second witness stated to the court that she was left with only a partial structure, with bricks missing from walls, window and door frames hanging, no floor, and the roof a mere plastic sheet. Also according to court records, there was now only 613,228 Malawi Kwacha, US$584, in her bank account. “I trusted Mfiti,” says Makiyi in her court submission. “I cannot read or write, I just used my thumb print whenever he told me to.”

However, in his 14 July verdict, Magistrate Balaka said that withdrawal slips to confirm that “the accused person … was preparing the (withdrawals)” were missing from the court docket. He added that the money might indeed have been used to “purchase the building materials and other stuff,”  as it could not be clearly proven if an amount – or, if so, what amount – had actually been taken by the accused. The magistrate added that CCTV footage from the bank could “buttress the fact that the accused person was going (and) withdrawing the money,” but since such footage was also not submitted to the court, he found that “the case (lacked) some material evidence to substantiate.”

The last prosecution witness, fiscal investigations police officer Vincent Muyaba, was chastised by the magistrate. “We believe the police could have done better than this in terms of their investigations into the matter,” he said. When asked if the state would appeal, prosecutor Henry Chitandale said he needed to consult his seniors on the matter. “I have a reaction but I can’t express it because our job is sensitive,” he said. 

Sources close to Jacqueline Makiyi, who now lives in the structure that was built in her home village in Thyolo, say she feels helpless and shocked with the ruling.

Godfrey Mfiti’s lawyer, Hanif Aufi, only said that his client had been “innocent from Day One.” Asked to respond to Makiyi’s accusations, he said that there had been no need for a defence because the state failed to bring evidence, and therefore Mfiti was acquitted. Mfiti himself also stayed mum, even though he had told ZAM in February this year that he would reveal “big news about Leigh Day” after the court case. In this conversation on WhatsApp, Mfiti appeared to hold grudges against the law firm, whom he said he had employed him for four years to assist tea plantation victims. Leigh Day denied this, stating to ZAM that “no one was subcontracted to help in ensuring the women received their compensation” and that it was “aware of allegations of money taken from our clients by individuals”.

When asked by ZAM after the court verdict if he would now reveal his “big news” about Leigh Day, Mfiti stopped responding.

Leigh Day itself only said that “it would not be appropriate for us to comment.” Asked how the law firm thought it could avoid the risk of leakage of money in the event of future compensations, the firm’s spokesperson said that “we have processes in place to support our clients when they receive compensation in all our cases and these are kept under review.”

UPDATE, 23.08.2023: In a comment that was received late, Godfrey Mfiti denied all wrongdoing, saying that he did not receive any money from Ms Jacklin Makiyi and that he also did not build the ‘incomplete’ house. The story has also been updated to further clarify that all that was stated in the story with regard to the complaints against Mfiti was derived from court records.