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Information under lock, key

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Gift Trapence

Earlier this year, President Lazarus Chakwera directed local councils and statutory corporations to update service users on development projects being implemented as one way of promoting transparency and accountability. But, as SAMUEL KALIMIRA and JARSON MALOWA write, this has not been the case, as the August 30 2022 deadline the President gave has elapsed.

Forty-five-year-old Fred Kapwepwe Saidi from the Lake Chilwa area in the Eastern Region has been trying to compile a list of roads constructed in Zomba since 2010, with the view to use the knowledge on the campaign trail in 2025.

According to Malawi Electoral Commission’s calendar, Malawi is on course to holding Local Government (ward councillor), parliamentary and presidential elections in 2025, giving citizens an opportunity to add their voice to the democratic process.

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Kapwepwe Saidi indicates that he would like to vie for the ward councillor position when time for elections comes.

“To do that, I need to have all the information, which will serve as my arsenal. Using information on projects, I can ably challenge the incumbent councillor by simply pointing at information that is in the public domain. But, then, I have been struggling to source the information because, when I approach Local Government officials, they toss me from one office to another.

“However, my hope was rekindled when the President [Lazarus Chakwera] ordered councils and parastatals to upload information related to projects they are implementing on their websites. I felt like, ‘wow, now this is great’. I was in for a surprise,” he said, almost jadedly.

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In Salima District, Patuma Bitchayi Issa has been trying, with negative results, to source information on the number of boreholes drilled in the Thavite area between July 1 2020 to October 1 2022.

“I have been doing that for the past 10 months, without success. District council officials keep on saying I have to get in touch with my MP [Member of Parliament] and councillor. I thought these things are discussed during full council meetings?” she queried.

The 35-year-old single mother said attempts to source the information on the websites of the local council as well as parastatals responsible for the provision of the life-saving liquid have not been as successful.

“I am sad because I wanted to furnish my Middle East friends, who are interested in sanitation issues, with the information. Who knows? They may end up drilling more boreholes in Salima District,” Bitchayi Issa lamented.

The two are not alone, as some civil society organisations in the country have also observed the anomaly.

For instance, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) has accused some local councils in the country of undermining Chakwera’s directive for them to upload information pertaining to projects being implemented in their areas of jurisdiction on websites.

Riled by local councils’ and parastatals’ reluctance to update the citizenry on on-going projects, Chakwera gave them until August 30 this year to make the information available on websites.

However, according to the Information Platform for Public Infrastructure (IPPI) portal, 10 councils have not posted information about ongoing projects despite that officials at some of the councils were trained in how to handle the portal.

HRDC Chairperson Gift Trapence said the failed councils have demonstrated lack of respect for the Head of State.

“Some people say that our President is good at talking and not action. We believe councils that are not uploading information are making the president fail. Undermining Presidential directives is disrespectful and those found culpable should be summoned and disciplined,” Trapence said.

However, Mzimba District Commissioner Rodney Simwaka, whose Mmbelwa Council is not appearing on the portal, said they still need capacity building to handle the website.

Simwaka said though some officers were trained in how to use the portal, the office is engaging, and needs, qualified personnel.

“Even those who are working in acting capacity are not qualified for the position. So, we lack the capacity to work on the portal. And what we are thinking is that we should invite experts to assist us,” Simwaka said.

Rumphi District Commissioner Emmanuel Bulukutu said they have not posted the information because they are still working on other requirements that would qualify them to upload information on the portal.

However, Chairperson for the Multi-Stakeholder Group that promotes the agenda of transparency in the construction industry, Joe Ching’ani, described the excuses as lame, saying they orientated the officials to familiarise themselves with the portal.

Ching’ani said failure to post the information creates doubt in service users, who may smell something fishy even where there is no wrong-doing.

“Of course, before the directive only 40 projects were posted and, now, we have 140 projects which is not enough. We can do better because other councils have not posted despite being properly trained. What are they hiding?” Ching’ani queried.

As of Monday, 117 construction projects were posted on the portal, out of which 20 are rehabilitation projects, eight expansion and two replacement projects.

This is despite that the portal has the potential to increase citizen engagement in the construction sector and promote transparency and accountability of public resources.

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