Evelyn Groenink

Exposing corruption from exile

How an investigative editor continues his work while on the run

Gregory Gondwe, founder and editor of Malawi’s Platform for Investigative Journalism, and currently on the run from the Malawian military, still cannot figure out how his country’s president, once-vocal opposition and anti-corruption activist Lazarus Chakwera, is now seemingly unable or unwilling to reign in the bloodhounds. “You ask yourself: who is this person? Is this the same person that I met when he was on the campaign trail and made all those promises?” Gondwe asks when interviewed in South Africa, where he is “waiting and hoping” for the fury around his latest story to calm down. “My sources in the state will let me know.”

The story that created all the trouble had, on 29 January 2024, exposed a US$ 20 million military acquisition from a businessman called Zuneth Sattar, with whom Malawi state structures, including the military, had been barred from trading ever since the tycoon’s UK arrest in 2021. The ban was instated by Malawi’s energetic Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) due to several questionable multimillion-dollar transactions with Sattar which, according to the ACB, delivered very little value to the country amid grave suspicions of enrichment of officials involved in the deals. Sattar is currently standing trial in the UK, where he lives. He has denied all charges.

Armoured personnel carriers

Gondwe’s story exposed, with documentary proof, how the Malawi Defence Force (MDF) under Chakwera’s government was pursuing an acquisition of 32 Armoured Personnel Carriers from Sattar, and had already made a partial payment. After publishing the story, Gondwe was informed by his sources that the military top structures were now looking to bring him in for a “chat”. He decided that it would be better to leave for a while, “because ‘a chat’ means that they want to pressure me to reveal my sources. Which of course I will not do.” The military leadership, specifically army commander General Paul Valentino Phiri, rather than explaining the MDF’s side of the story, opted to send Gondwe a veiled threat on WhatsApp, letting him know that he knew where he was: “Enjoy South Africa.”

“I admit that I am a bit spooked,” says Gondwe.

The military is looking to bring him in for ‘a chat’

Journalists have been attacked in Malawi recently, and two individuals who exposed corruption were killed: Anti-Corruption Bureau director Issa Njauju in 2016 and Malawi Revenue Authority customs official Alinafe Bonongwe in 2022.

Gondwe’s disappointment in the new Chakwera government, which is supposedly in charge of the MDF, is clear from the headline of the story: “Chakwera still in bed with Sattar.”

Does he think the state system in Malawi will ever move away from officials and politicians simply “eating” from the state budget, instead of providing services to citizens? Gondwe frowns. “I don’t see it in the short term. Because to become anyone in politics, or in the state, you must join the present system. There is a Public Sector Reform policy report that may address some of these problems by establishing better checks and balances. But President Chakwera is sitting on it; it is not moving forward.” Maybe development partners and donors, in the West and elsewhere, could apply pressure for the required action to be taken? “Certainly, that might help. After all, it’s also their money being wasted.” 

Staying alive

For now, however, he continues to expose the rot and publish. “The best way to stay alive is to immediately publish the evidence that you have. So that they have nothing to shut you up about.” His latest story, concerns a report from Malawi’s National Audit Office that details instances of questionable MDF spending, including the payment of an irregular “overseas training allowance” to General Phiri himself. In a response, General Phiri vehemently denies these allegations, once again ending his messages with a “hope to see you.”

See also:

Malawi | Investigative editor in hiding

Malawi | Punished for not being corrupt