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Government tells off Hellen Buluma

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PRESIDED OVER MEETING—Chitculo

Former National Oil Company of Malawi (Nocma) deputy chief executive officer (CEO) Hellen Buluma Wednesday appeared before the Public Appointments Committee (Pac) of Parliament in Lilongwe, where she poured out a litany of allegations regarding dealings in fuel supply contracts.

However, government has hit back at Buluma, accusing her of being responsible for worsening the fuel supply crisis in the country.

In an interview Wednesday evening, Secretary for Energy Alfonso Chikuni, who also sits on the Nocma Board as ex-officio member, said Buluma never wanted to accept that the country was going through a fuel crisis as evidenced by the way she transacted business while at the helm of the company.

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Chikuni said, in order to avert the problem of persistent fuel shortage, government had been advising Nocma to diversify the supply models owing to the fact that the current mode, which depended on availability of forex, was no longer working.

Appearing before Pac, which had summoned her to shed light on circumstances that led to her departure from Nocma, Buluma claimed, among other things, that Secretary to the President and Cabinet Colleen Zamba— who is chairperson for the Nocma Board— was pressurising her to give fuel importation contracts to certain firms.

The further claimed the supply chain, as guided by Zamba, was flooded with brokers – all in breach of procurement procedures.

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Those suppliers and brokers included one Eva Kamwangala, who is based in South Africa, and a “Chief” from Nigeria – an agent of a South African company called 700 SA Oil and Gas.

She further alleged that Zamba also interfered in the fuel deal which President Lazarus Chakwera secured in the United Arab Emirates with the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company on his way from the 2022 United Nations General Assembly.

According to Buluma, initially, the deal was supposed to be a government-to-government one and that she was supposed to be dealing directly with the CEO of Abu Dhabi National Oil Company.

She further claimed that another company, called Yield, came in supposedly to be financiers despite the fact the deal was initially supposed to be between Abu Dhabi National Oil Company and Nocma— dealing with each other directly.

However, in reaction to Buluma’s statements, Chikuni told The Daily Times that government saw merit in engaging those that were submitting unsolicited expressions of interest to understand the details, especially those that were offering to supply the product and be paid in Kwacha.

“The former acting CEO has been extending contracts for the current suppliers for the past five months and has not shown interest in advertising for new suppliers despite being instructed by the board in July 2022 and, again, in August 2022,” Chikuni said.

According to Chikuni, Buluma chose to obtain Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets Authority approval for extension each time the contracts expired.

“It must be known that she was sitting in IPDCs herself as controlling officer because she wanted to influence decisions,” Chikuni said.

He said, being a crisis, Buluma was requested by the board to speed up the process of including new suppliers while ensuring that the required laws and regulations are followed.

Chikuni said, unfortunately, Buluma refused to take the advice, opting to continue giving business to existing suppliers, raising questions on whether this was a deliberate move to maintain suppliers she is comfortable with.

“The intention by Buluma to discredit all new players she was being referred to shows that she was not committed to supporting government efforts to avert the fuel crisis.

“However, regardless of her false claims, her dismissal from acting CEO post had nothing to do with this situation but the board was complying with the Ombudsman’s determination,” Chikuni said.

Buluma left Nocma last week, almost three weeks after Ombudsman Grace Malera determined that her recruitment as deputy CEO was irregular and unprocedural.

However, in a twist, Zamba wrote Malera, informing her that her board would not comply with her determination, arguing that Buluma had proven to being efficient.

She also disclosed in the same letter that the board had appointed her as acting CEO until December 2022 – after the expiry in August of her contract as deputy CEO.

Zamba’s response was in itself irregular as determinations of the Ombudsman can only be challenged through court.

Last week, the board U-turned on its decision to retain Buluma and announced the termination of her contract, although Buluma insists she had resigned before government announced the termination of her engagement.

Pac was also scheduled to meet Zamba and the entire Nocma Board on the matter Wednesday but they did not show up.

Speaking at the end of the inquiry, the committee’s chairperson Joyce Chitsulo expressed concern over the failure by Zamba and the Nocma Board to appear before the committee.

She said the committee would look at the Parliamentary Standing Orders to see what they say about people who deliberately choose to disregard summons by the committee.

All members of Pac from the ruling side opted to stay away from the meeting.

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