Malawian president says corruption reports “fake news”

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LILONGWE, July 1 (Reuters) – Malawian President Peter
Mutharika said on Sunday reports accusing him of fraudulently
benefiting from a near $4 million government contact were “fake
news” as part of a ploy to smear him ahead of a national
election next year.

“I did not personally benefit in any way from the contract
and that’s why I am concerned about the lack of truth. I am
worried about what our country has become in as far as peddling
of fake news on social media is concerned,” he told Reuters.

“I do understand that it’s election season and my opponents
will come up with all manner of lies to in an attempt to win the
hearts and minds of people.”

Mutharika, president since 2014, has been tipped to be
re-elected, but regular allegations of corruption could hobble
his campaign in the impoverished southern African nation where
reports of government graft have become routine.

The country’s anti-graft body, the Anti-Corruption Bureau,
has been investigating a $3.9 million Malawi police food supply
contract awarded to Pioneer Investments – a firm owned by an
Asian-born Malawian businessman Zameer Karim.

Malawi’s two biggest daily newspapers on Friday published
what they said was the ACB’s final report into the contract.

The reports, widely circulated on social media, said the
businessman deposited 145 million Malawian kwacha ($203,000)
into an account belonging to the ruling party and of which
Mutharika is sole signatory.

Karim denied wrongdoing. “My company was awarded the
contract after a rigorous process so I don’t see any
wrongdoing,” he said.

ACB director general Reneck Matemba did not comment on
whether the report reflected its final conclusions, which have
yet to be officially published, but said: “We are still
investigating the procurement and we are not finished yet.”

Malawian presidents have seen the impact of corruption
allegations before.

“Cashgate”, the 2013 corruption scandal in which senior
government officials siphoned millions of dollars from state
coffers, saw international donors cut off aid and then-president
Joyce Banda go into self-imposed exile in the United
States.

Malawians next go to the polls in May 2019 to elect the
president, parliament and ward councillors.

Periodically hit by severe food shortages and power outages,
the country is struggling to contain its external debt and put
its economy on a sound footing – all chief campaign issues
alongside corruption.

“As president, I have demonstrated my commitment to fighting
corruption by allowing ACB to even investigate my cabinet. I
didn’t block the investigation of one of my ministers over the
Zambian maize procurement deal,” Mutharika said referring to a
scandal that saw his agriculture minister arrested for his
suspected part in the deal.

With the election, Mutharika faces losing the immunity from
prosecution he currently enjoys as sitting president.

Mutharika main rivals are Banda, and current deputy
president Saulos Chilima, who quit the ruling party last month
citing corruption.

Banda returned home in April and vowed to prove her
innocence after more than three years in the self-imposed exile.