By Thokozani Chenjezi
A plan to construct a magnificent hotel on a piece of land that is located within the river banks of Lunyangwa river in Mzuzu city, known as the Chinese gardens, has raised eyebrows among authorities and city residents as the place is plainly a flood hotspot.
And our investigations have established how corruption might have influenced the Ministry of Lands officials to accept change of land use application by the developer as well as the Mzuzu City Council officials to dubiously approve construction plans.
Last week flamboyant and controversial Minister of Local Government and Rural Development Kondwani Nankhumwa warned council officials to desist from corrupt tendencies saying he will not spare suspects.
“You might have heard that some council officials have been arrested and even suspended for mismanagement of resources,” the flagship Daily Times quoted him as saying.
Paradoxically, Nankhumwa is embroiled in a number of questionable deals ranging from alleged extortion, nepotism and corrupt activities all linked to the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA), the Malawi government cash cow.
At the heart of the hotel project is a wealthy businessman Kenani Kasinja popularly known by his trade brand, Tahiti Networks.
The Centre for Investigative Journalism Malawi (CIJM) established that Kasinja bought the land from another business family, the Gelos, who were primarily using the land as an orchard due to its geographical nature.
But Kasinja is alleged to have decided to convert the land into a commercial property apparently with an intention to construct a hotel on the land.
In fact the developer has already constructed a brick fence around the land in readiness for the project.
We have it on authority that Kasinja maneuvered his way to obtain a change of land use approval by some ministry officials at the Lands Commissioner’s northern regional office in Mzuzu.˜
Then the developer obtained a dubious approval of his construction plan by some Mzuzu City Council officials to construct the hotel on the land.
But when city residents started making noise about the project, the developer put the project on ice while the officials then started backtracking on their earlier dubious approvals.
The procedure is that once a developer acquires land from the Ministry of Lands, the Malawi housing Cooperation or the City Council, he or she submits construction plans to the City Council who scrutinize them through the Town and Country Planning Committee that is made up of independent city residents as well as technocrats from the Lands and City Council.
Our sources within the Lands department confided in us that some officials at the regional Lands office allegedly helped Kasinja to change land use from urban agriculture to hotel construction.
But Northern Regional Commissioner for Lands Anold Thumba denied that his office processed change of ownership from the Gelo family to that of Kasinja or change land use from urban agriculture to that of commercial use.
“Who told you that he wants to construct a hotel? What I know is that Mr Kasinja did not change ownership of the land or its use. That land is meant for urban agriculture and from my knowledge he constructed the fence just to protect his plants,” Thumba said.
But in an interview Kasinja suggested Thumba was not telling the truth saying the Lands Commissioner’s office approved his change of use application from urban agriculture to that of commercial use.
Kasinja said he followed all procedures in changing ownership and land use from urban agriculture to commercial use as he really intends to construct at hotel on the land.
“I changed land use and everything with the Department of Lands office, I followed all necessary procedures. If they did not change in their books then who am I to know or change by myself, I am only an outsider and maybe they might have had their reasons not to change but all I know is that I changed”.
“After all for one to develop the land first of all you need to change ownership and land use and I did change everything, otherwise how could I would submit my construction plans to the Town and Country planning committee for a land that was in another person’s name?”
In a separate interview, Director of Planning and Development for Mzuzu City Council Alexander Chirambo said Kasinja indeed brought plans for the hotel to the Planning committee that were in his name but were turned down.
“We don’t have the documents now as they were torched together with our offices last year but if my memory serves me well Mr Kasinja presented his plans and the land was in his name but were turned down,” said Chirambo.
He said he was not aware of any backdoor dealings in the whole fiasco saying he was abroad for a long time for further studies.
On other hand Kasinja conceded that the Town and country Planning committee did not approve his actual hotel plans hence the project has stored but was still exploring improvements to have the hotel plan approved.
He said he only constructed a brick fence around the land after noting that some people were encroaching but that was only after getting an approval of the fence by the Mzuzu City Council.
“The plans were turned down because they say the land is meant for urban agriculture but I said I could put some fish ponds down where the land is much closer to the river and erect the rooms on the upper side which is closer to the road,” said Kasinja.
However Thumba maintained that the land is still in the name of the Gelo family but he could not say what type of plants are there. CIJM saw only wild grass in the premises
Similarly, Thumba could not explain himself how he came to know that it was Kasinja who bought the land, who erected a fence as well as that his intention was to protect his plants using the fence and not that it was all an intended hotel project since he was claiming the land was still in Gelo’s name based on the documents his office have.
However, Assistant Director of Town and Country Planning and Estates Mariana Banda told us that Kasinja brought plans for the construction of a hotel at the place but were turned down by the Town and Country Planning Committee.
She said she was not aware that Kasinja still has any intentions to proceed with the construction of the hotel at any later point.
“What I know is that Mr Kasinja submitted his plans before the Town and Country Planning Committee but were turned down. What was approved is the fence only,” said Banda.
This was contrary to what Kathumba claimed that the land still belongs to the Gelo family according to the documents his office has.
This raises further questions as how Kasinja would bring his construction plans apparently in his name on a land that was in Gelo’s name.
Mzuzu City Mayor Councilor William Mkandawire in an interview expressed discontent and suspicion of underhand dealings with the way the issue has been handled saying he has since demanded a written formal report from the City Council Planning Department.
Sources at the Council told us Kasinja by-passed the City and Town Planning Committee by using some officials at the City Council’s Planning Department to approve the plan of fence only and then use that same plan as an approval for the whole hotel project.
The trick was intended at using some engineers at the council who have the mandate to approve some supplementary structures of the whole project like the fence singlehandedly to approve his project through backdoor.
Upon making the approval, the City official are said to have hidden the documents from the City Council for over three months so as to leave the Council with no chance to reverse the decision as procedure stipulates.
“What I heard was that the plans were approved by somebody within the Council and that was not made known to us in time with the intention for the three months of which we can reverse the decision to elapse so that we have no chance to stop that,” Mayor Mkandawire said.
But Kasinja maintained that there was nothing sinister in his dealings saying he followed all procedures and he is only waiting from the council to approve his plans so that he develops the land into a beautiful hotel with fishponds and other vegetative beautifiers.
“By the way I did not buy this land from the City Council or the Land people, I bought it from a family and it had been used for urban agriculture yes but I want to develop that land to look beautiful by putting fishponds and other agricultural vegetation,” he said.
Now, that the issue has become too hot to handle with many sectors becoming interested in it, the developer seems to have halted the project at the fence phase while the City Council and Lands officials are now backtracking and disowning the “approvals”.
- This story was supported by the Centre for Investigative Journalism Malawi (http://investigative-malawi.com) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (https://www.occrp.org/en), in association with the amaBhungane Centre for Investigative Journalism.