LILONGWE (Tamanda Matebule, M&G ) –An investigation by M&G Centre for Investigative Journalism,  amaBhungane, has turned a spotlight on systemic corruption in Malawi’s immigration department, involving the alleged issuing of fraudulent travel documents, work permits and citizenship rights to non-nationals in return for backhanders of up to $2,000.

A nine-member syndicate involving state officials – one allegedly in State House – and a private Lilongwe-based businessman is driving the fraudulent document scam, departmental sources have said.

The fraudulent issuing of travel documents, mainly, it is alleged, to Bangladeshi and Pakistani nationals, has a direct bearing on South Africa. Sources in the department said many illegal immigrants are using corruptly obtained transit visas to cross into Mozambique en route to South Africa, their ultimate destination.

Attempts to reach South African Home Affairs Director-General, Mkuseli Apleni, and the deputy DG for immigration services, Jackie McKay, to establish whether the South African authorities were aware of the claim were unsuccessful.

The rot appears to reach to the top echelons of both Malawi’s home affairs Ministry and the immigration department, which falls under it.

In March this year the former home affairs minister in Joyce Banda’s administration, Uladi Mussa; the former chief of immigration, Hudson Mankhwala; and David Kwanjana, former chief citizenship officer, were jointly charged in the Lilongwe Magistrate’s Court with “corruptly issuing citizenship to Burundians and Rwandans, among other nationals”.

The documents allege that Mussa fraudulently granted citizenship documents to more than 50 foreigners in 2013 when he was minister of home affairs.

The three were charged with “neglect of official duty contrary to section 121 of the Penal Code and abuse of public office contrary to section 25B(1) of the Corrupt Practices Act”.

Court documents allege that the three men took bribes from foreigners in exchange for Malawian passports while Mussa was a minister. He has denied the charges, describing them as “a political tool to silence him”.

The case has been referred to the Lilongwe High Court for trial.

And last month opposition MP Harry Mkandawire alleged in Parliament that immigration department boss Masauko Medi had signed off on a consignment of blank passports from the company Technobrain that was subsequently found to be 250 passports short of the correct number.

Earlier, a stores officer had refused to sign for the defective consignment.

The serial numbers of the missing passports are said to run from MW853501 to MW853750. According to media reports, a Nigerian national using a Malawian name, Vincent Banda, was arrested in South Africa while travelling to the United Kingdom using Malawian passport number MW853507.

Medi, who has not been charged, referred amaBhungane’s questions to the principal secretary for Home Affairs and Internal Security Samuel Madula, who demanded a written questionnaire. However, five weeks after receiving the questions Madula had still not responded, despite several reminders.

In a related development, there has been of spate of arrests of immigration officials at Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe and Blantyre’s Chileka International Airport in connection with the alleged fraudulent issuing of work permits and travel documents.

In late April, immigration officer Henry Kwanjana – the son of former chief citizenship officer David Kwanjana – was arrested at Kamuzu airport and charged with illegally issuing temporary work permits to foreigners. According to evidence before the Lilongwe Magistrate’s court, he is accused of issuing permits to Pakistani nationals.

And in June, police arrested six immigration officers at Chileka airport over the disappearance of an official sticker booklet containing 60 stickers used to authenticate visas. They were later charged with theft.

Sources linked the incidents at the two airports said: “These stickers are used for the illicit trafficking of Bangladesh and Pakistan nationals.”

Immigration department spokesperson Joseph Chauwa did not respond to amaBhungane’s questions, but later told Malawi’s Nation newspaper “there have been joint ongoing investigations between the (immigration) department and the Malawi Police Service” on these illicit dealings.

According to court documents, the visa book comprises three types of stickers: those used in transit visas, which normally cost $50 each; single-entry visas, which cost $75 each; and multiple-entry visas, which cost about $150 apiece.

Three senior sources in the immigration department, who asked not to be named, said that a syndicate lies behind the corruption in the immigration department, comprising junior and senior immigration department officials, an official in State House, and an Asian businessman based in Lilongwe.

The names of the State House official and the businessman are known to amaBhungane.

“The syndicate is international and has … facilitators who act as middlemen in facilitating the travel of Bangladesh and Pakistan nationals to South Africa through Malawian airports of Chileka and Kamuzu,” said the one source.

“These middlemen have connections with senior officials and they provide particulars of the travellers needing visas. It is the seniors who hand over the details to junior officers, some of whom are stationed at headquarters while others are at the airports.”

Current home affairs minister Grace Chiumia told the Malawi Parliament last month that the government is aware of a syndicate operating in the immigration department and that the authorities are “investigating the issue”.

The sources said the standard bribe for a fraudulent transit visa was in the range of $1,500 to $2,000 The transit visa allows travellers to pass through Malawi to another country and is valid for seven days.

“Under normal circumstances, foreigners transiting through Malawi are supposed to get their visas from Malawian embassies in their countries of residence or the nearest country with diplomatic relations with Malawi,” said one source.

In Asia, Malawi only has diplomatic relations with Japan, India and the People’s Republic of China.

There were earlier signs that all was not well at Malawi’s airports. In 2015 the inspector general of police, Lexton Kachama, demoted seven officials in the criminal investigations department at Kamuzu airport after they had allegedly connived to permit three Bangladeshi nationals entry into the country without having their passports stamped by airport immigration officials.

Online publication Nyasatimes reported at the time that a Pakistan human trafficker had bribed each of the seven officials with $1,500 to let the Bangladeshi nationals into Malawi.

Kachama would not comment further. The national spokesperson for the police, James Kadadzera, said the anti-corruption bureau and the immigration department were better placed to comment on investigations at the department.

Meanwhile, the “passports for sale” racket has been highlighted in another court case: that of Rwandan genocide convict Vincent Murekezi, who was found in possession of two Malawian passports bearing different names.

Passport number MA606888 is in the name of Vincent Murekezi, making him as a Malawian born in Kigali, Rwanda, while passport MA078171 records him as Vincent Banda, a Malawian born in Mbeya, Tanzania.

During a Rwandan extradition application earlier this year, the Lilongwe Magistrate’s Court heard that Murekezi “bribed his way to be naturalised as a Malawian citizen”. The Malawi media later alleged that he paid a hefty $5,000 to immigration officials for the passports.

The Rwandan government is seeking his extradition to Rwanda, where he was convicted in absentia in March this year and handed a life sentence for spearheading the killing of Tutsis during the 1994 genocide that cost over a million lives.

He fled Rwanda and sought refuge in Malawi, where he allegedly obtained the Malawian passports. The case is ongoing.

The spokesperson for Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau, Egritta Ndala, said the bureau had launched an investigation into the immigration department, but “would not be in a position to know whether there was connivance or not as that would be known after the investigations (are) concluded”.