Terminator: Ombudsman probe ends 16 ‘illegal’ contracts

By Gregory Gondwe

Scores of officials at the Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA), including two of its former Director Generals, were recruited dubiously, in sheer disregard of the law and in processes that were rigged as part of political appeasement and nepotism, a months-long probe by the public protector has concluded.

And in one of the most consequential determinations to date, Ombudsman Martha Chizuma has nullified the contracts of former Director Generals for Malawi Communication Regulatory Authority (MACRA) Godfrey Itaye and Postmaster General Henry Shamu plus several directors and managers for unlawful recruitment—all nullified contracts amounting to 16.

Both Shamu and Itaye will lose their terminal benefits as a consequence of the directive, and if their benefits were already paid, the Ombudsman ordered that they should be reclaimed.

The Office of the Ombudsman is mandated under section 123(1) of the Constitution to investigate any cases injustice and under section 5(1) of the Ombudsman Act Cap. 3:07 of the Laws of Malawi, the Ombudsman has the mandate to inquire and investigate any complaint concerning nfair treatment, abuse of power to name a few, by any organ or employee of the government.

The probe at MACRA followed an anonymous tip that accused officials of employing unqualified individuals with connections to the former ruling party, Democratic Progressive Party, the former Director General, his wife, those who attended the same church with them and their friends.

Proving the family ties and political interference in most of the recruitment proved elusive but the Ombudsman still found evidence that concluded that the recruited office holders have no perquisite qualifications and in some cases new officers were recruited to replace deserving serving officers while others were employed in positions that do not exist on Macra’s official structure. One recruitment exercise drew suspicions that it had been staged with the preferred candidate being scored close to 100 percent while his rivals for the job had their result sheets altered with erasures for unexplained reasons.

‘Blue-eyed Itaye fast-tracked interview’

The report, titled Secure Deception, says Itaye—the former Director General—was initially appointed Postmaster General (PMG) on 27th August 2014 by President Peter Mutharika without any interviews.

But it’s the speed of how Itaye was seconded to MACRA that left Chizuma to conclude the board at MACRA which by law is supposed to handle the recruitment, was bulldozed by government to appoint Itaye.

A year later, Itaye was appointed Director General of MACRA following an extra ordinary meeting at Ryalls Hotel on 10th August 2015.  Minutes of the meeting indicate that the board was informed that its recommendation of Andrew Kumbatira as Director General was not accepted by the Minister of Information which meant there was a vacancy in the office.

The board reportedly further advised that Government was proposing for the Board’s consideration for the re-assignment of Itaye, the board deliberated and recommended the name of Itaye to the minister and on the very same day the Minister accepted. Itaye’s appointment later was effective 9th August 2015, a day earlier.

In May 2020, government redeployed Itaye to MPC to serve as Postmaster General and on 17th June 2020 then Chief Secretary Lloyd Muhara redeployed Itaye from Malawi Post Corporation (MPC) to Lilongwe Water Board (LWB).  On 16TH November 2020, the new Tonse led-government redeployed Itaye back to MPC.

Itaye’s current contract at MACRA was supposed to end on 30th January 2022 but Chizuma nullified all the contracts and ordered board of MACRA to provide evidence of the nullification by 30th May, 2021.

“Mr. Godfrey Itaye’s employment as PMG in 2014 was illegal. Under Section 78 of the Communication Act (1998) the Minister of Information was mandated to appoint the PMG and on recommendation from the Board. Contrary to this, the evidence is clear that Mr Itaye was appointed PMG by the President through the then Chief Secretary, Mr Willie Samute and facilitated by the former CSC Mr ZangaZanga Chikhosi. None of these had the legal mandate to make the appointment. Further to this, there is no evidence that the recommendation was on merit after an open and transparent process as required by the s4 Public Service Act. This was a maladministration,” ordered Chizuma.

The recruitment processes, concluded the Ombudsman, were a mockery and boards were only used to rubberstamp decisions already made.

The irony lady turns terminator: Bites again

Chizuma, who is due to take up a new appointment as Director General of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) has been a trailblazing Ombudsman who has transformed the office with some eye-catching determinations and this one will leave long and so shall be its consequences and precedencies.

In all nullified contracts at MACRA, Chizuma ordered that all costs emerging from those that are injured by the directives should be settled personally by those who were responsible for the recruitment including in some instances the former president Peter Mutharika, Chief Secretary Lloyd Muhara, board of directors at MACRA.

The ombudsman has also ordered the new board of MACRA to advertise all the nullified contracts within a specific period.

Shamu, who had been seconded from Malawi Post Corporation (MPC) as Director General, was not subject of the complaint, but the Ombudsman said she reviewed his employment as a matter that emerged in the investigation at MACRA.

On Shamu, who recently resigned from government service, the report says Shamu was appointed as Postmaster General without any interviews by Mutharika’s government and contracts given to Shamu based on his 2017 contracts, including his redeployment to Macra, were illegal.

The Ombudsman, who warned that political appeasement, nepotism and tribalism should stop being a yardstick for employment in public offices,

further nullified over seven manager level positions that were advertised as Voucher Adverts—without declaring in public that the vacancies were open at MACRA, saying the move was contrary to the law as no public body is allowed to use such a recruitment method.

The Ombudsman has further found that the members of Board for 2019 cohort had no qualifications for such work and that only two members of board could ably articulate issues related to the Board.

On audit of vehicles owned by MACRA by irregularly used by others outside the regulator, the Ombudsman found that one of vehicles was deployed to State House and used by the then Head of Security Norman Chisale.

Ombudsman dismissed allegation that Fegus Lipenga, one of the directors for Macra (responsible for broadcasting), was recruited illegally and also dismissed similar accusations against some four junior employees who were allegedly recruited irregularly, accusations Chizuma said were not substantiated by any evidence.

The Ombudsman faulted the recruitment of Technical Advisor on Digital Migration Benson Tembo, whom the report says was just forced on a position at MACRA on secondment from Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) where he was Director General to pave way for his Deputy, Aubrey Sumbuleta to ascend to Director General.

Itaye could not be reached for comment yesterday but Shamu refused to make a comment on the findings.

“You are looking for my comment? No Comment,” said Shamu.

Reacting to the report, MACRA board chairperson Stanley Khayila yesterday said the board will convene within days to review the determination and ensure it complies with the report while Principal Secretary for Ministry of Information (responsible for e-government) Francis Bisika said the ministry will ensure that the key stakeholders follow the law in complying with the directives.