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Government asks for allowances probe at MIM

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Milwad Tobias

We reveal how government-owned institution blew K20m needlessly on allowances and misled Vice- President Saulos Chilima with their conference

By Deogratias Mmana:

At a time government is trying hard to be prudent with its spending in the face of a tough economic climate, details have emerged about how, Malawi Institute of Management (MIM), bulldozed its way into spending K20 million on allowances alone for some ‘artificial’ participants at a faith-based organisational leadership conference it organised.

The conference was presided over by Vice- President Saulos Chilima.

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Our findings show that a majority of the participants were not genuine and had only been last-minute additions to save the institution the embarrassment of having the meeting, which was held in Mangochi, deemed a flop.

Held under the theme ‘Transformative religious leadership: The pathway to growth mindset’, the seminar took place from December 16 to 17, 2021 and had only one paid-up participant with seven facilitators.

Each participants was required to contribute K450,000.

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Seeing that there was only one participant, MIM top management, led by acting Executive Director Samson Phiri is said to have mobilised participants from around Mangochi to attend the conference for free and further asked some members of staff to pose as participants.

In the process, the institute spent over K20 million in allowances.

But one staff member, Chief Management Development Consultant responsible for Short Term Training Denis Msakwiza, refused to attend the conference to ‘fool’ Chilima as if he were a genuine participant.

Msakwiza was suspended for his action and further for refusing to authorise payment that was meant to facilitate logistics for the conference.

Documents that we have show that some concerned staff members wrote Comptroller of Statutory Corporations Peter Simbani, alleging ‘victimisation’ which includes Msakwiza’s case.

The staff allege an ‘untenable work environment’ which forced some of them to take early retirement.

Simbani has since ordered MIM Board to investigate management and the alleged issues.

On December 20, 2021, Phiri wrote a suspension letter with reference MIM.D.3.110.C to Msakwiza.

“I wish to inform you that you have been suspended from work with immediate effect. The suspension is on full pay and is based on the following: On 13th December, 2021 you refused to be part of the team that was scheduled to welcome the Vice-President of the Republic of Malawi at Nkopola Lodge in Mangochi.

“On 15th December, 2021, you refused to authorise an online payment that was meant to facilitate logistics for the Faith Based Leadership Conference that was held from 16th to 17th December, 2021,” reads part of the letter signed by Phiri.

The third reason for the suspension is that Msakwiza wrote GIZ, a major client of MIM, instructing them to demand a refund of K8.1 million from the institute.

From the communication that we have, Msakwiza responded to the suspension by justifying his refusal to be part of the team welcoming Chilima and also not authorising payment for the conference.

He said he did not want to be part of the team that would be abusing MIM’s funds.

He said the communication he received from the acting Director of Finance and Administration Catherine Mselemu was that he should sit in during the opening ceremony of the conference.

“I refused to sit in during the opening ceremony because the conference was not supposed to be held since only one participant applied. I tried to convince him [Phiri] to cancel the training but he refused. As such, he invited 15 members of staff from MIM, including myself to fool the Vice-President that we should appear as participants. I didn’t want to be part of the team to fool the Vice- President, hence I refused,” reads a communication from Msakwiza which we have seen.

In the communication, Msakwiza alleges that Phiri went ahead inviting local religious leaders in Mangochi to attend a free training just to fool the vice-president that religious leaders attended the training while there was only one paid-up participant.

On the refusal to authorise payment, Msakwiza said: “I didn’t want to be part of the team abusing public funds. You can check with the MIM Finance Department, only one person paid for the training, an amount less than MK500,000.00 but more than MK20 million was spent. Are we really an economic parastatal that we are supposed to make profits with all our training? Are we really a centre of excellence?”

Msakwiza refused to grant us an interview and wondered how we got the documents.

The seven facilitators for the conference were Father Boniface Tamani covering the topic “Building on transformative interface. Leading for co-existence”; Pastor Dennis Matekenya on “The DNA of successful leadership”; Reverend Masauko Mbolembole anchoring a panel discussion on lessons on crisis management; Thomas Chataghalala Munthali on the role of religious leaders in propelling Malawi to the inclusive wealth creation and self-reliance.

Others were Bishop Brighton Malasa on “Congruency of religious leadership and faith communities’ culture”; Sheikh Dinala Chabulika on “Rising beyond religious stereotypes to enhance religious harmony” and Reverend Towera Masiku on “Commandments of transformational religious leadership”.

Other staff members that complained of alleged victimisation included Rosina Karim, who challenged her transfer through the Ombudsman and Malawi Human Rights Commission but later decided to retire; Dumbazile Mbawala; Ruth Kamaliza; Chimwemwe Mtonga; Joyce Kadondo and Audria Namondwe.

“Since their ascendance to power [acting executive management], there have been tendencies of staff members being victimised to the extent that some were forced to go for early voluntary retirement after their working environment became untenable and forced unfair suspensions,” reads the letter.

Asked for a comment, Phiri said Tuesday he needed a week to respond to the issues because he was engaged with board matters.

MIM Board Chairperson Lewis Dzimbiri said his board had not yet received the complaints from the staff members.

But he said the board will act once it receives such complaints.

“We believe that the aggrieved persons should report to their immediate supervisors,” Dzimbiri said, advising the complainants to reach his board if they do not get help from their supervisors.

But Dzimbiri confirmed the leadership conference and that he was one of those that welcomed Chilima.

He said he could not confirm if there was only one paid-up participant.

But Dzimbiri’s boss, Simbani, wrote to MIM Board on May 26, 2022 instructing it to investigate the issues and furnish his office with a report for government’s action.

“I write to inform you that I am in receipt of communication from concerned staff members of Malawi Institute of Management (MIM) lodging a complaint to my office and alleged victimisation of staff and nepotistic behaviour by the acting Executive Director, Mr Samson Sikelo Phiri, Acting Director of Training and Consultancy, Mr Jambo, and the Acting Director of Finance, Ms Catherine Mselemu,” reads Simbani’s letter with reference number CI/83/01.

The letter adds: “Considering the gravity of the matters raised in the complaint, I would like to request your Board to immediately institute an investigation in line with the MIM Staff Terms and Conditions of Service and report back to my office as soon as possible.”

In an interview, Simbani confirmed instructing MIM Board to investigate complaints including the hosting of the conference where the institute ‘fooled’ Chilima.

“There are several wrongdoings by management at MIM and when I received the letter from the concerned staff, I instructed the board chairperson to investigate the matters. There is a team investigating and I am waiting for a report from the board for the government to take action,” Simbani said.

When we brought the matter to Chilima that he presided over a conference with strange participants, he described the development as unfortunate and welcomed the investigation.

Through his spokesperson Pilirani Phiri, he said: “If this was indeed the case, then that’s very unfortunate. Let the board proceed to investigate and take appropriate action.”

Good governance analyst Mabvuto Bamusi said MIM has clearly breached principles of corporate governance.

“The board has failed to safeguard the integrity of the institution and that of their own as individuals. Allowing such a conference to go ahead is in itself a bad decision, a suspicious undertaking, and an insult to Malawians. The MIM board has abused staff and the Mangochi religious leaders who were ambushed into attending a conference they knew nothing about,” Bamusi said.

.He said the K20 million expenditure on allowances is a slap in the face of citizens who are currently facing a steep rise in cost of living, and it is an affront to public finance management laws.

.”The conduct of the MIM board is arrogant and it is a misfit to all manner of austerity frameworks,” Bamusi said.

Executive Director for Centre for Research and Consultancy Milwad Tobias faulted MIM for proceeding with the meeting when it emerged that there was only one paid-up participant.

“The fact that they proceeded and spent K20 million is an issue worth investigating as there may be suspicion of fraud,” Tobias said, insisting that MIM management should refund the money that was spent on the conference.

Another governance expert

Clemente Alfazema said it is good that the government has ordered the investigation to establish the truth.

“If indeed only one attendant paid the fees then it did not make economic sense to go ahead with the conference. It is not uncommon for government bodies to make decisions based on appeasement, which is archaic, however if the information that hefty allowances were drawn is established to be true, the motivation to move ahead with the programme would be beyond appeasement but rather rent extraction or defrauding the public purse,” Alfazema said.

MIM, a government parastatal, has a mission to provide high-quality modular and demand-driven leadership and management training, consulting and research services in Malawi and beyond.

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