The four-hour question: What killed Chilima, Shanil and others?

…. what happened in four hours veep plane went missing?

….no rescue and search efforts

….one villager called OPC, Police and the Ombudsman

What happened in the four hours between President Lazarus Chakwera being informed the plane carrying his deputy Saulos Chilima and others had gone missing and the Malawi Defence Force Commander- Valentino Phiri’s report at 3 pm that it could not be traced? This is the main question that Malawians are keen to be answered as the first of the victims of the crash start being buried on Wednesday.

One of the victims of the incident- Abdul Lapukeni, who Deputy Chief of Protocol, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was scheduled to be buried Wednesday evening in Mangochi, and Captain Flora Selemani Ngwirinji, who was one of the two pilots of the plane, is expected to be buried on Thursday in Thyolo.

Maximum flight time from Lilongwe to Mzuzu is around one hour. If the plane had been advised to return to Lilongwe, alarms should have been sounded by at least 12 noon, yet the President waited for pm and only addressed Malawians at 11 pm at night, raising more questions than answers.

The official narrative is wanting- raising more questions and questions- leaving a trail of confused, angry and very angry mourners that the government needs to step up its communication and start providing answers as political temperatures rise.

Minister of Information Moses Kunkuyu claimed the investigations had been started, a claim an aviation authority said was highly irregular as it was supposed to inform the manufacturer and aviation agency in the region who conduct independent investigations.

The Investigator Magazine has been informed that the ill-fated Dornier 228-202K, registration MAAW -T03, a German which is based at the Zomba Airbase and frequently used by the Malawi Air Force to transport High-level officials fuel capacity could last up to four hours only.

Dornier 228-202K, registration MAAW -T03 that crashed in Chikangawa

President Chakwera, in his own words, gave the military four hours to find the plane, but the search only started after its fuel capacity had run out and probably crashed, killing everyone on board.

Malawians and the World continue to react to the death of former vice President Chilima, former First Lady Shanil Dzimbiri and others in a plane crash; the Malawi Government has not given an immediate cause of the crash at Nthungwa in Chikangawa Forest, north of Malawi, save that the weather was bad.

Background of the Incident

The weather on the route had been bad, and the departed Captain Flora Selemani Ngwirinji, who had flown the body of the Late Former Justice Minister Raphael Kasambara to Mzuzu on Sunday, reported to a friend that the weather had been challenging.

People in the region- which has no commercial flights- reported foggy and rainy conditions all week, and the decision to fly the vice president in such weather will require some convincing explanations to the public wary of political assassinations that have haunted previous Malawi regimes.

The Investigator Magazine received a tip at 11.20 that the plane carrying Dr. Chilima had disappeared around 10.58 and could not be contacted. President Chakwera indicated that he was told at 10.45 by the MDF that they were not in touch with the plane.

Soldiers at Moyale Barracks report that they got information around 12 noon but were stopped from proceeding to the forest, which they know very well as it is their exercise and duty station at times.

Moyale Barracks soldiers know very well the forest as it is their exercise and duty station at times (An MDF Soldier in forest)

UTM officials told The Investigator Magazine at 12 noon that they had been in touch with the control tower, but the plane was no longer in touch. While the party officials were panicking, there was no sense of movement in government agencies until The Investigator Magazine released a new alert that there was no update on the plane’s whereabouts. Other media picked it up.

Where was the MDF general during the first hours

The MDF commander Valentino Phiri is said to have operated as normal, just like President Lazarus Chakwera kept information to himself and a few people, and preparations for his travel to the Bahamas continued unhinged.

General PV Phiri and Minister of Information giving a presser

The Investigator Magazine confirmed that General Phiri was at Kamuzu International Airport around 3 pm, the same time the President had given him to report about the missing plane.

The 3 pm narrative by President Chakwera about communicating with the MDF Commander around 3 pm raises questions again, as he was aware that the plane- by 3 pm- had already been missing for close to four hours.

The appearance of General Phiri at KIA was either a deliberate or a pre-planned alibi that he was on duty- which would raise more questions again as to what he had done in the four hours the vice president’s plane was missing.

Officials at the Office of the President and Cabinet were only informed around 4 pm to start working on the announcement, and the Diplomatic Note Verbale was dispatched late on Monday; countries in the SADC area were only informed officially on Tuesday morning.

The Investigator Magazine had also established that the 12 officers that led the search and rescue arrived at around 2.30 pm at Chikangawa and dismissed the public search by 7 p.m. when the MDF General appeared next to Information Minister Moses Kunkuyu; he was already aware that the vice president was dead.

The question is, why did the Minister of Information and the MDF commander tell the nation lies that they were still searching and the forest was dense? The area where the plane crashed is open and near villages and people’s gardens.

A highly placed security official informed the Investigator Magazine that the vice president was dead before 5 am on Tuesday, which was briefly posted by one of the social media managers before it was taken down as only a few people had been briefed.

What villagers reported

After the news broke out, by 4 pm, social media had audio by two women who reported that they had seen a plane attempting to land near Thira, and then it disappeared. This was circulated heavily, but the government agencies were not responsive.

The second report was captured by Zodiak TV, which covered the recovery of the bodies, and a man (name withheld) claims that he personally called the OPC, Police and Ombudsman to report seeing a plane heading down.

“The plane hovered over the ground for 10 minutes, then disappeared into the clouds. Later, there was a loud thud. Some thought it was something else. I personally reported this early morning,” charged the man who says he had worked with Chilima in the reforms programme.

Questions about who received information, what time and how it was acted upon for how long will need answers if the public trusts the official version of the events.

And the public is not convinced so far.

The plane transponder, black box and safety

Questions on the plane’s fitness to fly are being raised in some quarters. Still, aviation authorities are baffled that a plane carrying a VVIP had its transponder switched off, which is highly unusual as, for safety reasons, it is supposed to be monitored in real-time.

A senior military official said late on Wednesday that the plane Chilima was using had a transponder and black box. The black box has both a voice recorder and a data flight recorder. He said it would be a lie if someone said the plane did not have those essential things.

Only military aeroplanes heading into danger zones or for safety reasons are allowed to switch off transponders. The late Chilima’s party- the UTM reported that the plane he was flying in did not have a transponder or was switched off.

A senior aviation authority says all planes are legally required to have a transponder.

The transponder- an electronic device that gives out a radio signal when it receives a similar signal telling it to which could have helped to locate its whereabouts quickly, and questions will need to be answered as to what really happened that the country number two citizen would fly unidentified in the sky.

“The plane cannot fly without a transponder. Because of fog, they are likely to have been flying using Instrumental Flying Rules (IFR), which you can’t use without a transponder as the control tower cannot connect you. If you are flying an airspace, you need a transponder,” said an aviation expert.

The transponder is like the identity of the plane. Without it, other countries like Zambia, Tanzania, and Mozambique could have picked up.

The plane also a black box which records all communications and cause of the accident. The government has yet to announce if it has recovered the black box, which would answer Malawians about what happened.

The plane also a black box which records all communications and cause of the accident.

The plane was equipped with the transponder, the ELT. The emergency locator beacon is activated immediately when you go into an emergency landing or descend abruptly beyond 5gs,” explained a shocked authority familiar with the plane Chilima was using.

This means if Chilima crashed, the MDF knew the exact location of the plane and toyed with Malawians for 24 hours.

The black box is said to be at the back, and looking at the wreck, it should be intact.

“My strong suspicion is that the plane did not reach Mzuzu, and there is no evidence that the tower in Mzuzu sent the plane back. The reports indicate the Mzuzu tower did not communicate with the plane,” charged another pilot.

They questioned Chakwera’s statement that he received a report and ordered a rescue and search.

“Once a plane has gone missing, the rules are 15 minutes on water or 30 minutes on land Fire, Aviation and Police, and you can ask the military to initiate search and rescue. This is under the Ministry of Transport, not the President. What happened is unusual, irregular and suspicious. A president can’t order aviation search and rescue and can only time it for four hours when he has no knowledge of the plane’s whereabouts. He knew what exactly was going on,” said an airport security official.

He said suspicion would grow as the area where the crash was found was supposed to be cordoned off, and evidence persevered according to international rules of the crash. Civilians were pictured on the site, which could have affected the investigations.

An unconfirmed military report claims the MDF Commander was informed of the transponder, and he responded, “Just go it one trip to Mzuzu, you will be okay”.

On the black box, an aviation authority said, “The recordings should show all the flights the plane has undertaken from Kasambara, matching the data with the recorded voices. That would then help anyone understand what happened.”

Possible Causes of the Incident

An aviation official claims the plane was airworthy, but the weather was not as bad as the previous day when the plane carried Kasambaras body to Mzuzu, which arrived in darkness as the airport had no lights.

An aviation official claims the plane was airworthy

Examining the black box can answer questions about the real cause of the crash. Hopefully, an international and independent-led investigation would produce credible evidence to satisfy doubting Thomases.

“The MDF cannot conduct acceptable investigations; their response was a total disaster. They can’t accept a 35-year-old aircraft should not be in service. A lot of things point at MDF. If the Government want to pacify Malawians, they should not be in the lead, they are already a suspect in the eyes of many Malawians,” advised a retired MDF 

Since the theories of being in the dense forest now seem not to hold, the government will have to be open about the investigation to exonerate growing theories of conspiracy and political mischief that others seem to be propelling.

How the bodies were found

24 hours after the disappearance of the plane- those who have been to the site of the crash indicate it was gruesome and not possible for the survivors, but others claim it is suspicious.

The vice president’s body was found without most of his clothes and with broken legs and his arm, which his guard Chisomo’s body was found intact – both outside the wreckage.

“The indications are that he might have jumped with the bodyguard from the plane. But why did the bodyguard have clothes and him no trousers? Who was really the first to arrive at the scene? What happened that people seem to have been misled to stop the search only a kilometre away from the crash site? Who ordered that Moyale barracks not to go into the forest? Where did those searching first come from?” asked a senior UTM official who was among those who arrived at the site.

The gruesome pictures show the former deputy Malawi President in boxers only his legs cut and his right arm holding his rosary. He was a devout Catholic.

Other victims of the crash are reported to have had their heads cut off while five bodies were found in the wreckage. There was no fire.

On Wednesday, arrangements for a post-mortem had not been made, and one body, a Muslim Abdul Lapkeni, was released to his family to be buried in Mangochi. CID Police converged at Sunset Funeral House to stop further release of the bodies. Kunkuyu later told the nation that post-mortem would be done by independent specialists.

Late Abdul Lapkenis body was released to his family and buried in Mangochi

SKC refused,  apparently, three times to travel

The departed Vice president’s immediate family members said Dr Chilima refused to travel to Nkhatabay three times when he was contacted to attend the burial of the former Minister.

“He indicated he was tired after arriving on a long flight from Korea. The President called and asked him to travel as neither of us could miss the trip. The President has sent Ministers to the burial of other ex-ministers, such as Moses Dossi, recently; why would he want Chilima to travel? Please ask him to explain,” an angry family member told The Investigator Magazine.

Another family member asked President Chakwera to tell Malawians why he insisted Chilima should attend as he has not been sending him to such funerals before.

He said the family was treating the death as suspicious, the same as his party, the UTM.

Former Vice President Khumbo Kachali was at Kasambara’s funeral but was not asked to speak but was asked to lay a wreath initially meant to be done with Chilima.

“Kachali would have made sense; he worked with Kasambara in the DPP administration and then in the PP administration. Knowing that the Veep had travelled, why would the government insist on his attendance?” asked a UTM official.

Children of Shanil Dzimbiri, whose father is former President Bakili Muluzi, have also demanded a “proper explanation” for the death of their mother in the crash. President Muluzi and Madame Shanil had five children, most of whom were based in the United Kingdom.

Could 2025 be a factor? Was this a political assassination?

Two weeks after President Lazarus Chakwera declared that he would run again in 2025 despite an agreement with Chilima that they would alternate as candidates, political rumour mills have declared his tragic death as a political assassination.

Chilima was seen as the rival to the two main parties and pulled huge youthful crowds.

The death of Kasambara and Chilima within the same week in unexplained circumstances have fueled speculations as to what might have really happened. However, these are just political rumours with no substance until the Government can open up and provide the answers many are asking for.

President Chakwera, whose party, the MCP, had a long history of political assassinations, will require an open, candid and independent investigation to satisfy Malawians that Chilima’s death was an accident and not a political assassination.

With much at stake in the 2025 elections and campaigning underway, allegations of drug use, plots and painting each other black are likely to be played.

So far, even the mass preachers at Chilima’s residence are not holding back; answers need to start flowing before his burial next week.

UTM calls for open investigations

UTM Secretary General Patricia Kaliati spitfire on Wednesday evening, said emerging recordings, including one of the departing aircraft, are showing shreds of evidence that could prove vital to the investigations.

UTM Secretary General Patricia Kaliati called for an investigation as soon as possible

Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (MACRA) issued a warning over photos allegedly of the Vice President and other victims of the crash, which had been released on social media, saying it was illegal.

Dr Chilima’s remains will be laid to rest on Monday, while Shanil Dzimbiri’s remains will be interred on Friday.

Editors Note: We do strongly believe government reaction and communication have been wanting. They might wish to start providing answers to calm Malawians, especially those who followed him politically. There should not be deliberate hiding of information, and credible investigations are necessary.

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