Malawi Govt called to account for K17.2bn COVID-19 funds

  • Citizen approaches Audit firms to do the audit 
  • Demand to know how much was spent, misspent and stolen

By Peter Makossah

Fresh from suspected misappropriation of K6.2 billion meant to go towards the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera administration has again been called to explain to the people of Malawi how much of another chunk of the K17.5 billion towards the same cause was spent, unspent and misspent.

Fearless Social Media activist Idris Ali Nassah has demanded for a fresh audit which would also be able to establish how much was stolen as well as the identities of those who mismanaged or stole these funds meant to assist with a public health emergency,

Nassah’s call comes hot on the heels of his successfully wrestling with the Department of Disaster Management (DODMA) on the K6.2 billion audit which was eventually made public after being kept under wraps.

Nassah believes Government consenting to carry out such an audit will be fulfilment of commitment, made when it sought financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The former Sunday Times, Nassah, had asked for the K6.2 report to be made public under the Freedom of Information Act (FIA) amid public outcry over allegations of misuse of COVID-19 funds, which health experts said was crippling the country’s pandemic response, the audit report revealed un-procedural procurement, irregular allowances, improper accounting, and wasteful expenditure without any appropriate budgets.  

Last year the government of Malawi received $91 million from IMF under the Rapid Credit Facility to help to address the coronavirus pandemic.

In an interview Nassah, who is engaging the members of the public and private auditors in probing the K17.2 billion funds, said when president Chakwera addressed the nation on April 18 following the K6.2 billion audit, he said: “If it were not for this audit, we would have all remained ignorant about how much of the K6.2 billion was well spent, how much was unspent, how much was misspent, and how much was stolen.” 

“If we didn’t demand were not for this audit, we would have no evidence of the crimes that have been committed or the identities of those who committed them,” Chakwera added. 

Asked what exactly does he want to achieve with the K17.2 billion, Nassah said the first objective is to ensure that the people of Malawi, the taxpayers, get to know how much of the K17.5 billion was spent and how each penny spent and on what and for what purpose.

He said: “What we need to achieve is to verify that the public resources were indeed properly and optimally utilized as planned on COVID-19 related interventions. Nothing else.” 

‘Resource mobilisation’ 

In an unexpected turn of events Malawi Government has said that there are no funds for more audits implying Malawians will be kept in the dark over how K17.5 billion of COVID-19 were used.

The decision not to release the funds come days after the leak of the audit report of the first K6.2 billion COVID-19 funds revealed how senior government officials including President Lazarus Chakwera’s close allies were implicated in the free-for-all loot.

The K17.5 billion was released by Treasury in January this year after the K6.2 billion had vanished. 

Earlier on, President Chakwera in a televised address, promised that his government will audit all COVID-19 funds released since the start of the pandemic’ however, the tune was changed and Acting Auditor General Thomas Makiwa announcing that the National Audit Office (NAO) does not have money to carry out more audits.

It is against this background that Nassah has decided to involve the members of the general public to mobilise resources for independent auditors to probe into the K17.2 billion plumber.

Nassah revealed that one private citizen and a business magnet has already pledged to help for the exercise and that a lot more people and businesses have expressed interest to support the cause.

“At the end of it all, we just want to know the truth. We would love to know how our money was spent, unspent, misspent and how much was stolen. We are engaging university students and anyone else who believe in a better Malawi as we fight for transparency and public funds financial prudence,” said Nassah. 

Nassah said: “Someone, who runs a business in Malawi, reached out to him saying that they were tired of watching their taxes being stolen and wasted away. 

“They asked me to come and collect a cheque of K3 million as their contribution towards the audit of the K17.5 billion Covid-19 money. This is in addition to several others who wrote and called, pledging various amounts of money, material and intangible support to the effort. 

In early February this year, President Chakwera ordered that the clusters should submit weekly expenditure reports to his Covid-19 Taskforce. 

“So, the reports should be there and it’s only a matter of the Secretary to the President and Cabinet making them available. So we wait,” said Nassah, adding:

“Audit firms normally charge 0.2% of total expenditure but those that we have engaged thus far understand that we are of limited means and have said they could do the audit for us at a discounted rate. Again, we wait. Once I hear back from SPC Zanga-Zanga Chikhosi, we should be good to go on the audit.” 

The K17.2 Billion was released by the Malawi treasury in January this year after the K6.2 billion had already been misused, abused or mismanaged. 

Nassah further said that the second objective for demanding for an independent audit into the K17.2 billion is to actualise President Chakwera’s call for an active and vigilant citizenry that demand accountability and an end to wasteful expenditure. 

“The sheer looting that happened with K6.2 billion was a wakeup call for all of us, the government included. So when it was reported that there was no more money to do another audit, we understood because the government has many pressing commitments. That is when we decided that we can play a role,” he said before disclosing:

“We have approached Audit firms to audit the K17.5 billion and we, the citizens, shall make contributions towards the cost of the audit.”

Nassah who has been approached with huge sums of money by top government officials to stop advancing queries over these expenses explained that the third objective for demanding the audit is to enhance the culture of accountability in the management of public resources and to increase the level of trust people have in their government. 

“It is through transparency and accountability that we shall defeat the scourge of corruption in all of our public institutions and it is through being transparent and accountable that governments earn the trust of those on whose behalf they govern,” he said.

Pressed on how he is going to source the funds for paying the independent auditors, Nassah said:

“Audit Fees are not cheap anywhere in the world, and at this moment we have not yet received the expenditure reports from the Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19 to know how much the audit will cost.” 

He however emphasized that it is far more expensive for the country to allow a cartel of a few greedy and selfish criminal elements to plunder public resources at will than it is to find money to find them.

“So, we will raise the money from people of goodwill and we will engage a reputable Audit Firm in a public and transparent manner,” he insisted.

Some months ago Nassah wrote an email to the Secretary to the President and Cabinet (SPC) Zanga-Zanga Chikhosi on the matter asking for the expenditure reports.

However, the SPC has, so far, not yet responded to Nassah’s request.

Nassah said: “Remember that President Chakwera in February ordered that the expenditure reports should be submitted to his Taskforce each week. I believe, that was being done and therefore the reports are there. I am hopeful that we will be able to get them soon enough to commence with the audit exercise.”

Highlights of the K6.2 billion audit report, which Nassah demanded to go public, include procurement flaws affecting up to K493, 907, 232, 42 irregular allowances whose amount is K80,277,500, irregularities in accounting for withdrawn cash amounting to K83,056,539 and failure to account for fuel expenditure amounting to K39,786585,80.

The report also indicates that K23, 649,094 was unbudgeted for, wastefully and dubiously spent and the audit report also faulted MDAs for failing to use K1 billion at the time of the audit. 

The report has several miscellaneous irregularities and these include K47, 124, 460 for the delay in the usage of COVID-19 funds, K381,656,321 for no receipted voucher register, K95,358,972 for untraceable personal protective equipment and other stores items and K21,942,603.31 on items not distributed to users.

Opposition United Democratic Front (UDF leader of the House and parliamentarian for Zomba Ntonya, Ned Poya said the K17.2 billion Covid-19 fund issue cannot just disappear or be ignored.

“The government, in my view, must take this matter seriously. Plundering money that is meant for the poor and sick is criminal,” he said. 

“If the president is serious on rooting out corruption and abuse of office then here is he is chance to show everyone he is serious,” added Poya, who is also deputy chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC)    

Firebrand and political old-hand Brown Mpinganjira, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) said in a separate interview that: “Anyone who is found to have abused or mismanaged the COVID-19 response funds must face the long arm of the law.”  

MHRC Take

Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) executive secretary Habiba Osman said that the abuse of COVID-19 funds resulted in the deaths of Malawians and that the government should have closed loopholes and find ways and means of punishing perpetrators. 

“We lost many brothers because of the funds’ abuse,” Osman said, “because our hospitals did not have the basic equipment and essential drugs when we had all the resources to save their lives.”