Eight years ago, Department of Nutrition, HIV and Aids statistics indicated that up to 142,000 children in Malawi were suffering from the problem of acute malnutrition, with a further 42.4 percent being chronically malnourished.
However, just when the figures of children who are either suffering from acute malnutrition of chronic malnutrition have been declining, it seems that policymakers have been paying attention to one problem while neglecting another— namely progress of public projects such as roads.
Take, for instance, progress of the 62-kilometre (km) Zomba-Chingale Road which, once completed, would ease challenges farmers, traders and other road users face in the areas through which the tarred road would pass.
By design, the road is expected to address transport challenges those who stay in Lirangwe [Blantyre], Chingale [Zomba] and Machinga [District] face. And, again, by time-frame design, the road was supposed to be long functional by now.
However, functionality has become part of wishful thinking for people in the affected area because, as road projects covering more than the 62km stretch have seen the light of day while Chingale people are still waiting for a day of their salvation; that is, the day the road will be tarred and launched.
Initially, in 2018, the project was estimated to cost $139 million [about K13.62 billion]. It was included in the 2015-16 national budget, when the Roads Authority (RA) included it on the list of five roads it planned to work on starting from November 30 2015 to 2018.
The first phase of the road, which was supposed to cover 19km from Lirangwe to Chipini, was expected to be completed by September 2019, according to RA. But progress has been painfully slow.
So far, the government has spent K12.3 billion on the Lirangwe-Chingale-Machinga Road project.
In 2018, the Central Government allocated funds amounting to K5.3 billion to mark commencement of the project.
The development saw former President Peter Mutharika laying a foundation stone at Lirangwe Trading Centre in Blantyre.
In the 2018-19 fiscal year, the government allocated K2 billion to the road construction project and, again in the 2020-21 financial year, poured a similar amount into the project.
The other year, the government has allocated K3 billion into what has become the bottomless pit called Lirangwe-Chingale-Machinga Road Project.
Ironically— which is not surprising, by the way— no one seems to be as enthusiastic as in 2018 about the project starting with, of all people, legislator for the area, community members and traditional leaders.
Blantyre North Member of Parliament (MP) Francis Phiso feels that believing that construction works will be completed by its 2025 timeframe is cheating oneself.
“There is no hope, actually, that the project will run according to its timeframe and this is very frustrating.
“To make matters worse, we really do not know if works will resume or not. The contractor abandoned the project a year ago. To say the truth, we have been told so many stories that we are no longer listening to anyone,” Phiso says.
The parliamentarian adds that what makes the whole situation worse is that he and constituents do not have an idea about how funds allocated to the project have been used.
Phiso says he does not understand how, despite the government pouring money into the project since the 2018-19 fiscal year, there is little, if any, progress on the ground.
“I have just left everything in the hands of God. Maybe, one day, the Treasury will provide a breakdown of funds utilisation. Right now, that information seems to be a well-kept secret by them,” Phiso claims.
Zomba Lisanjala MP William Susuwele-Banda says the amount of money allocated to the project has been too little for significant progress to be made.
He is of the view that the government just wants to silence community members.
“As legislators who represent the people who stay along this road, we once engaged the Central Government on the issue of the road. The people themselves delivered a petition to Parliament on the same but things do not seem to be moving in the right direction,” Banda says.
Chingale Road Taskforce (CTF) members were last year up in arms against the government over the K3 billion allocation, which they describe as a pittance.
CRT Chairperson Francis Gondwa says the government could have done better than this.
“First, we thank the government for the financial allocation to road construction works.
“However, we would like to know as to when the government will signal that the project should start again. We do not want this year’s allocation to go down the drain. After all, funds allocated to the project in previous years grew wings and there is nothing to show for all that money on the ground,” Gondwa once said.
Sub-Traditional Authority (STA) Nkapita says it is high time people’s faith in the government was rewarded.
The STA adds that people are tired of being used, and dumped, by politicians on the issue of the road.
“We are against politicians’ tendency of coming here when we draw closer to national elections, only to abandon people when they [politicians] get what they wanted. They must understand that the road is not a political tool but a development tool,” Nkapita says.
Meanwhile, Centre for Social Concern Programmes Officer Bernard Mphepo has urged government officials to be transparent on project funds’ utilisation to win back the trust of people.
“It seems like funds allocated to the project do not satisfy people’s expectations, which could be fuelling community members’ trust in duty-bearers,” he said.
As at now, community members are as downcast as when the road was not on the Central Government’s books.