History was made yesterday as retired President Benjamin Mkapa appeared in court in Dar es Salaam – as a defence witness in a 2.5bn/- theft case facing two people.
One of the accused is Prof Costa Ricky Mahalu, formerly Tanzania’s ambassador to Italy. The other is Grace Martin, once a counsellor under Mahalu.
The unprecedented testimony by the former president is widely viewed as an interesting twist to the high-profile case in which the accused are associated with occasioning the government los of the said amount of money through forgery of various documents used in the purchase of an embassy building in Rome.
Led by defence counsel Alex Mgongolwa, Mkapa told Principal Resident Megistrate Ilvan Mgeta of Kisutu Resident Magistrate’s Court that the purchase had his government’s blessings.
“The government blessed the purchase of the building …I was informed about that and I did not prevent it,” he said, adding that he was notified that the payments would be made by way of deposits into two accounts.
Counsel Mgongolwa then asked the witness how come the first prosecution witness, former Chief Secretary Martin Lumbanga, denied knowing about the purchase.
“I am surprised that he (Lumbanga) said so. What I know is that the purchase was approved,” said Mkapa.
Mgongolwa went on to ask Mkapa to tell the court why it so happened that he knew about the transaction but the Chief Secretary didn’t.
Responding, Mkapa said that might be possible “but it is very difficult”.
He explained that the much he knew was that two ministries – Works and Lands, Housing and Human Settlements Development – were involved in the evaluation of the said building.
He added that the report on the matter as tabled in the National Assembly by then Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation minister Jakaya Kikwete was correct.
Mkapa said he had neither received any complaints from Tanzania’s Embassy in Rome or the Controller and Auditor General relating to the purchase of the building or the money involved.
He told the court that he knew the former ambassador as good leader and an educated and diligent worker who previously served the Tanzanian government as Director of Higher Education and later as Counsellor at Tanzania’s Embassy in Germany.
The former president further submitted that he could not know the value of the euro relative to the Tanzanian shilling because that was the responsibility of some other people.
“What I know is that 2.9bn/- was disbursed for the purchase of the said building, but I could not tell whether 3,098,741.58 euros was equivalent to 2.9bn/-,” he pointed out.
Cross-examined by State Attorney Vincent Haule, Mkapa said he didn’t know what authority had ordered that the purchase of the building be subjected to investigation.
He submitted that he was not aware of the investigation of the payments and learnt that the former ambassador had been taken to court while he had already retired as Tanzania’s President.
He said he also learnt from the former ambassador that the owner of the building in question had verbally sought to be paid twice.
Mkapa said that, as Head of State, he could have prohibited the purchase of the building and ordered that the money be directed to other projects “but I appreciated the importance of the building and was satisfied that the country could safely meet the conditions of the contract”.
He explained that he allowed the former ambassador to proceed with the purchase “but without knowing the details of the procedures involved”.
Mahalu and Martin were arraigned in August 2006 but both denied involvement in a conspiracy to steal from the government.
The prosecution submitted that the duo, being persons in the service of the Tanzanian government, knowingly and with intent to deceive used payment vouchers containing false particulars to show that the embassy building in Rome cost 3,098,741.58 euros.
The accused are said to have committed the offence on September 23, 2002 at Tanzania’s Embassy in Italy. The case is expected to continue today.