Lusaka – Zambia’s former mines minister, Maxwell Mwale, was jailed for corruption on Friday, in a rare case that prompted calls for a wider crackdown on graft among public officials.

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Mwale, a former cabinet minister in Africa’s second-largest copper producing nation, was sentenced to a year in jail with hard labour after he was found to have interfered in the granting of mining licences to China’s Zhonghui International Mining Group.

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Magistrate Lameck Mwale said during sentencing that corruption in Zambia’s government had “become rampant and needs to be stopped”, but Mwale’s supporters said the case was politically motivated.

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Mwale was an opponent of former president Michael Sata, who died last year and was succeeded by his ally in the ruling Patriotic Front, President Edgar Lungu.

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“The offence he committed is something all ministers do and nobody raises an eyebrow,” Mwale’s cousin, Wallace Kamanga, told Reuters outside the court in Lusaka.

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“It’s just that he is on the wrong side politically.”

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Prosecution witnesses testified that with the minister’s influence, the Chinese firm was awarded the licences within three days when such a process normally lasted months.

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The magistrate found Zhonghui had no case to answer, fuelling accusations that the charges were trumped up by Mwale’s opponents. Zhonghui was not immediately available to comment.

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“It is difficult to tell whether this is indicative of the determination to fight corruption because (Mwale) is a political opponent to those in authority,” said Lee Habasonda, President of Transparency International Zambia.

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African countries are habitually criticised by rights groups for a poor record on corruption as the vast wealth generated from oil and minerals often finds its way into the hands of a wealthy political elite and rarely benefits the masses.

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“This is just a tip of the iceberg about what happens in Zambia and many African countries,” university law student Amos Zulu, 29, told Reuters.

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“Our political leaders are so powerful that they can do whatever they want … The fight against corruption needs to be stepped up.”

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Reuters