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Down the drain: Mombera construction funds

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FALLING APART—Mombera University hopes

Six years ago, a plaque was unveiled to mark the launch of construction works at Mombera University by erstwhile president Peter Mutharika. This brought excitement to many stakeholders, including community members, in Mzimba District, joy that was short-lived. But, as FESTON MALEKEZO writes, year in year out, the government continues to spend millions of Kwacha on this white elephant.

About three kilometres from the M1 Road, at Mzimba Turn-off to be precise, as one heads towards Mzimba Boma, lies what could be a magnificent structure, Mombera University, which is nothing but a bush surrounded by a ring road inside and an arc that is falling at what would be described as the face of the university.

The road network features highly on the list of achievements under the Malawi Universities Development Programme (Mudep) in the 2019-20 programme-based budget document.

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Apart from the ring road, the other structure on that piece of land is a seven-room building, which used to be a warehouse when the road network around the campus was being designed and constructed.

One security guard we met on the site, and who was apparently manning the house, said, after the contractor abandoned the place, nothing was left at the site apart from the empty building. Guards there are paid for the work they are doing; manning the ‘bush’.

But the guards are not the only ones carting home salaries for work that a common man would barely understand. Other workers are buried in paperwork.

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An inside source at the Ministry of Education said: “We have a team that comes in the morning and does work it knows best, mostly it is paperwork.”

Recently, social media was awash with reports that some people have been cashing in on the university, though there is nothing they are doing to deserve the cash because works stalled long ago.

Education Minister Agnes NyaLonje said, if someone were pocketing money on a project that stalled, it was up to institutions such as the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) to investigate.

NyaLonje said the time the Tonse Alliance-led administration was being ushered into power, it found that works at the university had stalled.

“As we speak now, we are doing preparations behind the scenes. There is a lot of work happening. You may also wish to know that the Ministry of Finance floated bonds to generate resources. The resources will be used for the construction of several projects. In December, I will also be going to a meeting outside the country, where the major part will be to mobilise resources,” she said.

Susan Chikagwa, is Mombera University Project Coordinator, said they were drawing their funds from Mudep.

She, however, could not shed more light on what work they were doing apparently, how much they have spent on the work so far since the inception of the project, among other burning issues.

She asked for more time. Our first set of questions was sent to her in December last year, to which she has not responded to date, despite several follow-ups.

On her part, Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Education, Chikondano Mussa, said they were still doing architectural designs, highlighting that the initial ones were wrong. She, too, could not divulge more information.

She asked for a questionnaire she has not responded to to date.

At that time, the plan was that the university project would be financed by the Malawi Government with no external assistance and was expected to have 10,000 people including staff and students.

As things stand now, there is no hope that the construction of Mombera University will start anytime soon.

The government has only listed it as one of its 15 flagship projects to benefit from a long-term local development bond.

The government says it is making headway on preparations to issue a 15- year development bond for the projects and one such is Mombera, which President Lazarus Chakwera said would be named M’mbelwa University.

Through the bonds, the government expects to raise about K1 trillion.

Mombera is one of the projects that have detailed designs; construction of road network in and outside the campus [which was done in late 2019].

A 2019-20 education sector performance report, released on November 9 2021 and authored by the Ministry of Education, indicates that millions of Kwacha were allocated to projects and initiatives which cannot be traced, as others were partially done and one such is Mombera, which only has access roads.

In December 2020, Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) asked the ACB to probe further the allegations of fraudulent use of money in the ministry.

In a letter to the bureau, HRDC Chairperson, Gift Trapence said they received a complaint that K2,483,000,000.00 was allegedly spent on Mombera University in the 2019-20 financial year.

In an interview, Trapence said they have not yet received feedback on the matter.

He maintained that there is still very little, almost negligent, work done at the site of the university.

“You see, in every budget, there was an allocation towards this project— which stalled. So, we wanted to know who was using this money, for what purpose? So we asked ACB to probe the issue,” he said.

When contacted, both ACB spokesperson Egrita Ndala and Director-General Martha Chizuma did not respond to our questionnaire after several follow-ups on whether they instituted any investigations into the issue.

Commenting on the delay, quality education advocate Limbani Nsapato described it as frustrating.

Nsapato said, as Parliament prepares to meet next month, legislators had an opportunity to pin the Executive so that it could justify expenses being incurred on construction works.

“We had high expectations that the present government would make the construction of the university a priority. You see, in the 2021-22 budget, there is no allocation for the project despite it being a flagship project. They are banking their hopes on a local bond which simply shows there is little commitment,” he said

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