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Malawian minister faces fraud charge

Malawi's anti-fraud body has accused senior politicians of corruption and mismanagement that has plunged the southern African country into a food crisis threatening at least three million lives.

Malawi is the hardest hit of six southern African countries needing emergency food aid to feed about 13 million people facing serious food shortages. After months of investigations, its Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) has called for the prosecution of government officials, whom it accused of "criminal recklessness" for selling 166,000 tonnes of maize held in strategic reserves to prevent famine.

Gilton Chiwaula, the ACB head, said most of the maize went to senior politicians, some of whom never paid for it. The politicians then resold the maize elsewhere at a profit. All the grain reserves were sold despite warning signs that a food crisis was looming, he said.

Malawi faces a food deficit of 600,000 tonnes after two years of drought. The ACB said the officials in the National Food Reserve Agency and the Agriculture Development and Marketing Corporation who sold the 166,000 tonnes of reserves were guilty of mismanagement and fraud.

Leonard Mangulama, who is now the cabinet minister responsible for poverty alleviation, was agriculture minister at the time the reserves were sold. He has been named by the ACB as the principal player in the maize sale scandal.

Fahad Assani, Malawi's director of public prosecutions, said his office would prosecute Mr Mangulama, for his alleged involvement in the scam. He said that apart from a charge of abusing his office, Mr Mangulama would be prosecuted for getting 300 tonnes of maize from the reserves without paying for them. Mr Mangulama allegedly resold the maize and pocketed the cash.

Mr Mangulama was quoted as admitting that he was a registered maize supplier in Malawi but refused to comment on the 300 tonnes the ACB accused him of fraudulently obtaining from the reserves.

Malawi has repeatedly blamed the disposal of its grain reserves on bad advice from the International Monetary Fund, a charge the IMF denies.

The government said about 500 people starved to death between January and March but churches and aid groups say the figure could well be in the thousands. The World Health Organisation said child malnutrition rates had more than trebled in the past three months from six to 19 per cent. It said the food crisis would lead to 300,000 further deaths in southern Africa this year.

Meanwhile the auditor general's office accused President Bakili Muluzi's office of failing to account for £488,000. It said there were no supporting documents to prove that the money was used for allowances and government vehicle maintenance as claimed.