Malawi Covidgate: Chasing Money that has grown wings

BY PIJ REPORTER

Amid a COVID-19 crisis in Malawi that has left a long trail of deaths, K6.2-billion (R124-million) set aside by the government for the national response to the pandemic has grown wings, forcing President Lazarus Chakwera to pledge that everyone involved in the looting will pay for their greed.

An independent audit has been commissioned to establish how the money was spent, Chakwera announced in his address last Sunday. He added that if the audit exposed any public officers associated with wrongdoing, “they will be dealt with and face the law”.

In a related development, the fiscal police last week announced the arrest in Lilongwe of ten officials from the Department of Disaster Management in connection with the alleged plunder, which has dented the reputation of the Tonse Alliance government Chakweraa leads.

Police spokesperson James Kadadzera

Police spokesperson James Kadadzera confirmed last week that the arrests were part of an investigation into the abuse of the COVID-19 funds, and that the suspects were being kept on remand awaiting their trial.

Malawians woke up to the shocking news two weeks ago of the massive and systematic plunder of COVID-19 funds.

Pressure from online campaigners forced the government to summon senior officials to demand that they produce expenditure reports. These were found wanting. according to a statement from the Office of the President and Cabinet

The money disappeared as Malawians died in health facilities that lacked essential equipment such as oxygen concentrators, cylinders, oximeters, flow meters and drip stands.

By February 22 this year the number of cumulative Covid-19 fatalities in Malawi had reached 1 013, with total active cases registered at 12 679, while 16 840 had recovered.

MPs and Cabinet Ministers were among those that succumbed to the second wave of COVID-19, apparently caused by a deadly new strain of the virus from South Africa.

A consolidated COVID-19 financial report from the National Local Government Finance Committee, dated January 31 this year, highlights the blatant misallocation of funds and priorities.

Some councils, including those at Chitipa, Kasungu, Machinga and Salima, spent not a single kwacha on the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) or medical supplies and consumables.

Instead, they allocated hefty sums for allowances, fuel and “other” expenditure.

A parallel private citizens’ initiative raised around K200-million (about R4-million) for the purchase of medical supplies that were delivered to hospitals across the country.

MHRC’s executive secretary Habiba Osman

In a statement, the Malawi Human Rights Commission called for the speedy investigation of fraudulent activities.

The commission’s executive secretary Habiba Osman, strongly recommended that “an oversight body or bodies needs to be equipped to monitor the usage of the COVID-19 funds, including citizen-generated funds that will be needed for addressing the pandemic …’

In addition to declaring a state of disaster, Chakwera has increased the number of isolation centres operated or aided by the state

However, the fatality rate continued to soar in January, mainly due to the lack of essential life-saving equipment and shortage of staff.

After it was revealed that the COVID-19 funds had been looted, the government pressed the panic button, calling on all presidential COVID-19 taskforce clusters to submit expenditure reports.

Dr. John Phuka

Chakwera also sacked the co-chairperson of the task force, Dr John Phuka, replacing him with Wilfred Chalamira Nkhoma. James Chiusiwa from the department of disaster management has also been fired.

According to statement from the office of the president, 28 district commissioners and several chief executives of municipal councils have been interdicted.

This week the media has been awash with the leaked letters of interdiction of certain district commissioners.

One of the commissioners, who spoke anonymously to the Platform for Investigative Journalism, said he felt the government was overlooking certain aspects.

He said: ‘Questions are lingering about how all the councils could commit the same crime at the same time. What guidance was given by the funding authority? To my knowledge, councils submitted plans which were approved.’

Announcing the COVID-19 expenditure audit on Sunday, Chakwera said it would cover the period from September to December last year

‘He said he had issued instructions for the interdiction of controlling officers whose clusters had not complied with his instruction to submit weekly expenditure reports.

Some of the parliamentary oversight committees, including that of budget and finance, immediately called for an emergency meeting of Parliament to probe the fiasco.

Chairperson Gladys Ganda said K17.5 billion (that government recently released as additional funds for the national response should also be scrutinized.

However, a government source said only about K1.3 billion, or 20 percent of the total, had been transferred to district councils, raising the question of how the rest of the money was used.

An epidemiologist based at the College of Medicine, Dr Titus Divala, called on his Facebook page for the government to focus on the large amounts spent by the central administration, saying it was likely that the K17 billion (R340-million) President Chakwera ordered to be released from Treasury had been misused.

Fresh revelations indicate that the government is yet to conduct quarterly audits on the US$91 million rapid credit facility sought from the International Monetary Fund in April last year to finance the Covid-19 national response. This was one of the key conditions for access to funding.

In a statement, the spokesperson for the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, Brown Mpinganjira, demanded that the audit report should be submitted to Parliament within seven days of being completed.

There have also been questions about how much the disaster management department spent on activities such as the reception, screening and testing of returning Malawians from South Africa. It was reported that K535 million and a whopping K580 million was splashed out on border patrols.

It later transpired that millions were blown on lunches, fuel refunds and allowances.