The grim news about how taxpayers’ money can be senselessly lost in some unclear adventures has come to light after Attorney-General (AG) Thabo Chakaka Nyirenda disclosed government is facing claims totalling about K2 trillion.
Now, this is not some amount to trifle with; it is a whole National Budget— not even fully funded by resources gathered domestically.
Just to put things into perspective: the 2022- 23 financial blueprint is pegged at K2.84 trillion, with a yawning gap of over K800 billion that has to be sourced from elsewhere.
That should provide a clear picture of how much we may lose to individuals and firms that feel government wronged them in some way and should compensate them.
Well, at law, there is nothing wrong with someone seeking compensation from someone who has breached an agreement they entered into.
But Nyirenda is of the view that some claims—in their individual cases— appear fraudulent as they are apparently too hefty and might have been arrived at after initial collusions to simply steal from the diminishing public purse.
In other words, what the AG is telling us is that the claims should not have arisen in the first place. Well, that is obvious, because an assiduous public officer will do everything possible to protect public resources under their care.
Of course, we have to acknowledge that people claim compensation for various reasons such as unfair dismissal, constructive dismissal, false imprisonment and negligence of public officers.
However, the majority of the claims that are now saddling government are to do with breach of contracts, where business people are demanding hundreds of billions of kwacha.
Still, in all these instances, there should have been the possibility of someone doing all they could to protect taxpayers’ money. Government would not be trapped in all these avoidable cases if controlling officers were diligent enough in their work.
But, somehow, it appears there are deeper underhand schemes in most of the claims that individuals and firms present to the government.
One would be forgiven for assuming some public officers connive with contractors by setting up projects and awarding contracts knowing that something along the way would frustrate the works.
These are corruption elements that have derailed the progress of many African governments. The activities that lead to government ministries, departments and agencies failing to honour the contracts and eventually giving leeway to the contractors to claim compensation are often dubious.
Then there was also a time AGs would not bother to defend public resources. They would simply sanction the claims and act in absurd fashions of pushing Treasury to pay up.
In some cases, government was forced to release the money because, after all, its chief legal advisor took that infamous route.
It is only now that we see an AG strenuously fighting claims on his desk. He is defending public resources because that is what his office is supposed to do.
In fact, there was a time Nyirenda warned that he would take further necessary steps on claimants who show that their intentions are purely to defraud government.
Perhaps, it is even necessary to dig deeper into the origins of the disagreements which are leading to individuals and firms claiming billions of kwacha from government.
At least, Nyirenda indicated in the passport contract matter that public officers who clearly failed to protect taxpayers’ money by sanctioning a contract that was too exorbitant should be prosecuted.
That would send a strong message to others who do not care about protecting what is under their care as long as it is not from their own sweat.
Then, there are claims where some individuals clearly had their rights violated by some overzealous superior officers who acted purely based on malice and political sensibilities.
For instance, there are people who were arrested on trumped-up charges simply because they held dissenting views from those of the powers-that-be.
It is common practice in Malawi that the moment a new government takes over the reins of power, several political movements affecting public officers are effected, some clearly unlawful.
There are also overenthusiastic officers who rush to arrest everyone they deem a threat or an opponent of the governing party.
For once, officers who make the absurd decisions should bear the consequences if their victims who feel their rights were violated, successfully sue.
There are also scenarios where the State has deliberately failed to show up before the court to prosecute a case until the presiding judge or magistrate is forced to discharge the defendants, who later sue for unlawful arrest.
In such cases, the ones who make the decisions which affect their subordinates or anyone below them clearly know that they are doing something illegal but often get blinded by politics, hatred and that feeling that even if the affected employee goes to court, it would be the AG defending the government and taxpayers covering compensation if so granted.
Time has come for those who allow public resources to be needlessly lost to be answerable. Only then will we instil that sense of responsibility in such officers.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. He believes that quality reporting is critical in bringing positive change in communities. Alick is the Southern Africa Development Community journalist of the year (2020) in the television category. Follow him on Twitter @aponje