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Inside Rumphi Dem office fire

IN RUINS—What remains of the office

Agnes Nyalonje

At around 6:30pm on August 23 2021, Rumphi District Education Office building caught fire.

When the District Education Manager (Dem) McPhine Mzumara got to the scene of the accident, he found that the fire had already stretched to the ceiling at the reception, therefore making it difficult for anybody to go beyond the reception corridor.

He stood in shock, about three metres away from his office, helpless as everything that could burn turned into ashes.

“The fire started from the reception area. On that day, I left the office at around 6pm in the company of Mr. Wayilinda Kapira, head of Accounts Section, with whom I had been discussing changes in the briefing programme with section heads which was due for Tuesday August 24, 2021. At that time, the office messenger, Mr. Vitumbiko Nkhowani Manda, was left behind to clean the offices as he usually does to ensure the office is ready for the following day’s business,” Mzumara said, briefing Minister of Education Agnes NyaLonje who inspected what remains of the premises on Thursday.

A preliminary report of the fire that we have seen indicates that the cause of the fire is not precisely known but an electrical fault is presumed to have caused it.

Cause and efforts to put out the fire

The report indicates that the fire was noticed by an on-looker from a house near the office, who alerted a watchman at the Sacco office. This security officer informed his colleague at the District Commissioner’s office as by then, the Dem’s watchman had not reported for duties yet. Then the DC and Director of Administration, who were still at their offices, were informed, the Dem was also called and he found the office in huge fire.

“Many people had come with different ways of trying to put out the fire but all these efforts did not yield anything,” he said.

According Mzumara, they only managed to rescue a few things; two desktop computers, a printer, a steel cabinet and some files and statistical returns and two laptops.

Extent of damage

According to the preliminary report, all furniture, equipment and records of various kinds have been destroyed.

It is also reported that cash amounting to K5,8 million for Centre Administration Fees, which was in a cash chest, was burnt.

“The plans to deposit the money were already there. As I speak, the police have taken statements from the office messenger, the security guard and other officers. Although damaged, the cash in the cash box was accounted for in presence of Police, treasury cashier, the Director of Finance, the Director of Administration. The money was also verified through physical counting,” he said.

The cash, although damaged, is being kept by the police.

Estimates by the Dem indicate that the building, which has entirely been gutted, could be valued at around K100 million and the other property lost is pegged at K26 million. Including the K5.8 million burnt cash, this would mean the inferno has claimed about K131 million.

Given the current scenario, the office would require space to operate from, supply of essential equipment and stationery to enhance operations, supply of furniture to enhance operations but most importantly, re-imbursement of the K5.8 million to schools for administration of examinations starting next month.

Interventions

According to NyaLonje, the role of her ministry and that of Local Government is to do a quick assessment to see what needs to be done.

She highlighted that priority is to find an office space, followed by securing equipment and then would continue with an inventory of things lost which has already started.

“The destruction is (DHRMD) to explain factors that lead to the variations in workforce in the civil service.

Principal Secretary for the department, Blessings Chilabade, did not give any response, referring us instead to spokesperson for the department, Kennie Mtonga, who did not readily have answers either for questions we sent him in the morning on Friday.

However, a source at the Treasury told Malawi News that such variations on the payroll are not normal.

“That is one way people in government steal money,” he said.

But Executive Director for Centre for Social Accountability and Transparency (CSAT) Willy Kambwandira feared that the variations could be a sign of enormous colluding and conniving among public officers particularly those in human resources and finance departments to defraud government.

He has since demanded investigations against officers responsible at the Accountant General and DHRMD.

“This continued revelation of abuse on government payroll simply tells us that the much-hyped headcounts are inadequate and a drain to the public purse, and are only conducted to fatten some people’s pockets.

“While we applaud government efforts to remove ghost workers from the payroll we are also greatly worried with inaction against public officers who manipulate government payroll system,” Kambwandira said.

Government has for the past years lost a lot of money through ghosts workers who were being included on payrolls by a selected team of individuals within its system.

For instance, an audit undertaken by National Audit Office (NAO) for the 2015/16 financial year cited continued existence of ghost workers and civil servants taking home double salaries as among the factors bleeding the public purse.

The audit found that physically non-existent employees but found on the government on the payroll were common in various departments such as energy and mines, irrigation and water development, agriculture, health and education, Science and technology.

The same ministries and departments were also found to be culprits of manipulation of salaries and allowances.

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