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Lazarus Chakwera removes John Phuka, James Chiusiwa

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Gift Trapence

As if he were reading the minds of Malawians, President Lazarus Chakwera Sunday moved a step farther from his usual threats when he announced the suspension and removal of some top officials involved in the fight against the Covid pandemic for incompetence and executive arrogance.

Among other people, Chakwera has removed Presidential Taskforce on Covid co-Chairperson Dr John Phuka and Commissioner for Disaster Management Affairs James Chiusiwa.

Chakwera also ordered the suspension of all Covid cluster heads, most of them are principal secretaries, for their failure to take heed of instructions given by the President on accountability of Covid funds.

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It was, however, not clear whether their suspension was only confined to their membership to the taskforce or extends to their respective ministries as well.

Chakwera’s tough action follows failure by some Covid clusters to present to the Presidential Taskforce on Covid convincing reports backed by supporting documents on how they used part of the K6.2 billion Covid funds released in August last year.

According to Chakwera, when the cluster heads presented reports to taskforce members last week, it was evident that many clusters were poorly led and required corrective measures.

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“All cluster heads, with the exception of one, submitted reports with no backing documents and had to be told on-site to bring backing documents. Mind you, these are reports of money that was mostly spent last year, whose backing documents ought to have been maintained regularly as a matter of best practice, and yet cluster heads appeared before my taskforce showing clear signs of negligence and lack of preparation,” Chakwera said.

“So, as a matter of first importance, I have directed the Secretary to the President and Cabinet to effect the immediate suspension of all cluster heads, some for failing to maintain proper records of how such critical funds were used and others for defying my directive to submit reports weekly to my office,” Chakwera added.

He said suspension would pave the way for a full forensic audit, which the National Audit Office has begun, and a full and independent investigation, which the Director of Public Prosecutions has requested the Malawi Police Service to conduct as a matter of urgency.

Chakwera has since named epidemiologist Chalamira Nkhoma as the new technical co-chair of the taskforce and has said he would soon announce the name of the new commissioner of the Department of Disaster Management Affairs.

The Malawi leader said, apart from a change of leadership, he would be strengthening the Covid Taskforce by adding to it representatives of civil society organisations and others.

“However, there remains the need to address alleged elements of criminal conduct by those who abused or misappropriated funds. As enshrined in the Constitution, these are matters for independent law enforcement agents and forensic auditors, who will do their work independently to pin down the culprits,” he said

He also asked Vice President Saulos Chilima, in his capacity as Minister of Public Sector Reforms, to form a taskforce and conduct a comprehensive review and overhaul of the three government systems of allowances, of procurement, and employment contracts and submit recommendations within three months.

However, Human Rights Defenders Coalition Chairperson Gift Trapence accused Chakwera of firing the “wrong people”.

“The President could have fired [Cabinet] ministers. They are failing in their oversight [role]. The President is sacrificing ‘small people’. You don’t fire middle managers. He could have fired the ministers, who are the heads,” Trapence said.

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