Malawi government fuming over search of presidential plane as Shepherd Bushiri makes a run for it

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Lazarus Chakwera has been sworn in as Malawi's new leader.
Lazarus Chakwera has been sworn in as Malawi's new leader.
Amos Gumulira, AFP
  • Malawi's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said President Lazarus Chakwera's departure on Friday was prevented for six hours.
  • The Malawian government said its presidential delegation and plane was also searched repeatedly but that no reason for this was provided.
  • In a statement, they said Chakwera wasn't even allowed to leave while the rest of the delegation was checked.

Malawi's President Lazarus Chakwera and his wife Monica were not allowed to leave South Africa as planned on Friday night as more details emerged of self-proclaimed prophet Shepherd Bushiri's escape from South Africa.

READ | Bushiri 'a wanted man' as warrant of arrest issued

Bushiri and his wife Mary were out on R200 000 bail when it was discovered that they had not checked in with the police on Friday as required in terms of their bail conditions.

In a surprise development, Bushiri appeared in a live video broadcast that was streamed online on Saturday in which he said he had chosen to leave South Africa in violation of his bail conditions because he feared for his safety and was concerned he would not get a fair trial.

He did not offer up information to substantiate his claims.

WATCH | Bushiri defends his decision to flee South Africa, claims he won't get a fair trial

His departure took place in the same week that Chakwera visited South Africa for talks with President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The overlap in Bushiri's escape and Chakwera's trip to Pretoria raised speculation that Malawi's leader - or at least his delegation - helped the self-proclaimed prophet and his wife flee.

Breach of protocol

But the South African government said on Sunday that the Bushiris did not leave the country aboard a flight on which Chakwera and his delegation travelled.

"Following the visit, President Chakwera and his delegation departed from Waterkloof Air Force Base in Pretoria and stopped over at OR Tambo International Airport to collect an additional number of officials who had travelled to South Africa earlier to prepare for the working visit.

"Department of Home Affairs immigration officials verified the identities of all passengers and Mr and Ms Bushiri were not on the flight," said spokesperson Phumla Williams.

However, the Malawi Ministry of Foreign Affairs was aghast at the way Chakwera was treated, saying it was not only a breach of protocol but was not how they were usually treated. 

A statement tweeted on Monday described how the delegation was prevented from leaving as planned at 15:30 on Friday for "unspecified security reasons".

This was out of line with arrangements already agreed.

"Dissatisfied with the vague security reasons given for the refusal, His Excellency the President decided that he would not travel back to Malawi without his advance team," the Malawi Foreign Ministry explained.

"In the impasse that followed, the Malawi delegation proposed to the South African authorities that only President Chakwera and his delegations should leave from Pretoria Waterkloof Military Airbase where their plane had landed, while the advance team should be picked up en route from OR Tambo International Airport. 

"For no apparent reason, the South African authorities rejected this proposal as well.

"The Malawi delegation then spent the next six hours trying to reason with the South African authorities before the proposal was accepted."

The Malawi government said it had reason to take issue with the events because its plane had been parked at the Waterkloof Airforce base and was under guard by the South African police.

The advance delegation's belongings were searched, their passports were checked by the SA Police Service, instead of immigration authorities, and their luggage was loaded by members of the SA National Defence Force. 

There were "dozens" of security officials present, who searched the plane, its cargo, and the passengers. 

"As such, the Malawi delegation was justified to dismiss as unacceptable and unsatisfactory the South African authorities' use of unspecified security reasons to hinder President Chakwera from leaving with his advance team."

They were checked again before and after boarding, and no reasons for this were given to them, according to the Malawi government.

The Malawi government said it was pleased to see that the South African government said it did not think Bushiri left with the presidential delegation, but added that it did not acknowledge how Chakwera was treated.

Meanwhile, Home Affairs Minister Aaron Motsoaledi is reportedly seething over the Bushiris' flight from South Africa.

"We were aware he was a flight risk, that's why I am saying. I am very angry. I personally believe he should have not been granted bail," he told Eyewitness News.

Bushiri, who describes himself as a prophet and is referred to as "Papa" or "Major One" by his zealous followers, has a significant religious enterprise, including his YouTube channel.

The Bushiris face charges of fraud and corruption. The charges include an inquiry into a R100 million investment scheme.

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