By Stanis Bujakera and Aaron Ross
KINSHASA -Congo’s Senate on Tuesday rejected a request by prosecutors to lift former Prime Minister Matata Ponyo Mapon’s immunity so they could indict him for his role in a failed agriculture project in which investigators say $200 million disappeared.
Prosecutors hoped to charge Matata, who served as Democratic Republic of Congo’s prime minister under former President Joseph Kabila from 2012 to 2016, with fraud, misappropriation of funds and dereliction of duty in connection with the project.
Matata has denied wrongdoing, including any responsibility for the missing funds.
Matata hailed the project, known as Bukanga Lonzo, as a solution to food shortages when it was launched in 2014. But it collapsed within three years, sparking a political firestorm.
In a secret vote following a closed-door debate, the senate voted 49-46 against lifting the immunity from criminal prosecution that Matata enjoys as a senator. One senator abstained.
“I accept this decision which respects the truth,” Matata told the senate after the vote. “I never took even a dollar from this project, either directly or indirectly.”
Prosecutors have not publicly provided evidence showing Matata personally benefited from the more than $200 million that they allege went missing.
But in a letter to parliament last month, they said he bypassed public procurement requirements to contract out operations at Bukanga Lonzo to a South African company and suggested he had a financial motive for doing so.
For example, four months after the South African company, Africom Commodities, won the contract in February 2014, Matata’s wife, Hortense Kachoko Mbonda, registered a separate agricultural company called Feed Africa with Africom’s chief executive, Christo Grobler.
Corporate documents reviewed by Reuters confirm that Kachoko registered Feed Africa with Grobler on June 24, 2014.
Matata and Kachoko did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comments.
“From the way Senator Matata and Mr. Christo Grobler…collaborated, one can easily understand the laxity by the public treasury from which the latter benefited,” the prosecutors said in their letter.
Grobler declined to comment. He has previously said that Africom acted in good faith and blamed Bukanga Lonzo’s collapse on the government. Africom left Congo in 2017.
Investigators also obtained a letter from May 2014 in which one of Matata’s top agriculture advisors updated him on the status of Feed Africa. The letter was provided to Reuters by a source close to the investigation.
“Your company, in partnership with the South Africans, is called FEEDAFRICA. This company has just acquired 10,000 hectares in the region of Bukanga Lonzo,” the advisor, John Ulimwengu, wrote.
In an emailed response to Reuters’ questions, Ulimwengu said he did not recall sending the letter.
“Even if you establish that Feed Africa was created with partnership from Africom leaders, at best it’s an ethical/moral issue but not a proof of corruption unless you want to make that leap,” he said.