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Doubts over K6.2bn saga direction  

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By Mandy Pondani

The K6.2 Billion Covid funds abuse saga came with the drama of high-sounding statements from the authorities and a blitz of interdictions declared on public podium and then arrests.

Now, it is a week since government recalled 27 District Commissioners (DCs) and Chief Executive Officers of councils from interdiction. It is almost a month after 15 of the 16 officials from the Department of Disaster Management (Dodma) were cleared of their charges.

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But it is unclear on the direction government is taking to recover the allegedly misappropriated funds.After the arrest of 62 government officials implicated in the matter as confirmed by National Police spokesperson James Kadadzera, none of the files has so far been committed to the office of DPP for legal advice and direction.

“We asked for time to investigate each of the specific cases, and as I speak the files are with our investigators. As I speak only one file has been completed and it comes before court on June 18. After investigations are complete the files will be sent to the DPP for legal advice and direction,” Kadadzera said.

He then disclosed that more arrests will follow, targeting all names that were mentioned in the audit report. But a political commentator from the University of Livingstonia George Phiri fears the series of arrests were merely a political gimmick aimed at hoodwinking Malawians that something was being done to fight the alleged fraud.According to Phiri it was erroneous to interdict controlling officers from a political podium, adding their subsequent reinstatement does not inspire hope that the cases they were answering will come to a logical conclusion.

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“This may instead make government lose a lot of money, in case these people decide to pursue labour cases against their employer since they were interdicted before investigations. “Let the government come out clear and tell the nation if such reinstatement means the cases leveled against those people were not true. Otherwise one would be tempted to say it was politics at play,” he said.

Executive Director for Centre for Social Accountability and Transparency (Csat) Willie Kambwandira said in an interview that administrative sanctions should have been taken on suspected public officers that were mentioned in the audit report and the report from the Office of the Ombudsman.

“Whatever is happening now is a blow to the fight against corruption. These officers that are back to work were supposed to be taken to competent courts, but as we speak it is not known how they have been cleared of the suspected offences. To date we don’t know how much has been recovered; this does not give hope or confidence,” Kambwandira explained.

When we inquired from one of the DCs if they have heard from government since they resumed work, Paul Kalilombe of Karonga District Council said there so far has been no other communication, save for the clearance notice which asked him to return to work.

“Cases vary from council to council, but Karonga District Council was cleared and we were told there is no need to appear before the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament, but for councils that still have issues, they might have received different communication,” he said.

But Chief Executive Officer for Malawi Local Government Association (Malga), Hadrod Mkandawire has bemoaned that the narrative around the K6.2 billion Covid saga, has given local councils a bad name, although a majority of them are being exonerated.

Out of the K6.2 Bllion Covid funds only K1.3 billion went to local councils. The audit report cleared 13 councils, save for Nsanje which at the time of the audit had not yet accessed the funds. The remaining councils have minimal queries. The real culprits of that syndicate are somewhere within the higher system and have been left scot-free,” Mkandawire said.

The loss of momentum on the matter comes in sharp contrast to what President Lazarus Chakwera said in his address on April 19, after his sanctioned audit report from the National Audit Office implicated scores of government officials.

“So, I want all the thieves hiding in the civil service to mark my words: If the finger of evidence points to you as one of the thieves who stole Covid money for saving lives while hundreds of our people were dying of Covid, you are going to prison. On top of that, we will use the relevant laws to ensure that you pay back what you stole. Mubweza!” Chakwera charged.

Asked on what is the way forward for President Chakwera to ensure that the money which went missing is recovered as he promised State House Press Secretary Brian Banda said: “The recovery of stolen funds is not the jurisdiction of the President. That is the job of the courts and the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB).”

The sentiments were reiterated by government spokesperson who is also Minister of Information Gospel Kazako who said the pursuit of everyone who was implicated in the audit report is continuing in accordance with the law.

He added that government is conscious of its moves and is aware of what it is doing. The Chakwera-sanctioned audit report which was released in April and signed by Acting Auditor General Thomas Makiwa, among other things, faulted the Presidential Taskforce on Covid-19 for failing in its oversight role in the utilisation of the funds. But Co-Chairperson of the taskforce who is also Minister of Health Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda has said they have now banked their hopes in the law enforcing agencies to ensure that the money is recovered.

The report revealed numerous flaws with chunks of money being used for other purposes instead of the intended fight against the Covid-19 pandemic and breach of procurement procedures among others.

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