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Lazarus Chakwera’s latest bite: Is the sweeping brush out?

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Saulos Chilima

The public service in Malawi is rotten; evidence has been there all the while. While there are those who dedicate their time and energy to the service of the public, others simply take their positions as stalls of liberty from where they can drain off public resources at will.

And there have been higher authorities who have noticeably acted as expedient and willing enablers of the malaise which continues to blemish our nation’s progress.

It all starts with the presidency, the highest seat from where power flows down to any subordinate officer who has to act and help in cleansing a troubled public service.

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President Lazarus Chakwera and his vice, Saulos Chilima, when campaigning ahead of the June 23 202 court-sanctioned presidential election, time after time vowed to rinse the public service with the aim of getting rid of all bad apples and creating a system that would help them steer Malawi out of grip of the grinding poverty synonymous with conflict-riddled territories.

That is one promise that seemed to have endeared the pair to the voters who turned up to give it the power to govern.

Chakwera began the presidency on what some quarters described as a low note that did not herald some deeply needed emancipation from the grasp of public officers who would stop at nothing to line their pockets with whatever resources come their way.

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“There are some early warning signs that what was promised to be a new day might have actually been a false dawn. The voices of discontent are rising among Malawians and we, too, as HRDC [Human Right Defenders Coalition], have seen it.

“This includes growing concern on the fight against corruption that appears to be easing back into business-as-usual mode,” said HRDC Chairperson Gift Trapence towards the end of last year.

Crisis not to be ignored

Some quarters did not agree with HRDC’s assessment and opined that Chakwera should be given time to act on his promises and clear the rubble as he had vowed.

And, when a scandal emerged on how funds amounting to K6.2 billion set aside for fighting the Covid-19 pandemic had been utilised, with several indicators that some officers had diverted part of the money into their pockets, everyone was obviously looking up to the President to, for once, stamp his authority.

He did in his address on Sunday.

“Last week, I expressed my outrage over the alleged abuse of funds and lack of financial accountability for the same by certain [Covid] clusters entrusted with K6.2 billion for tackling the pandemic.

“These were abuses brought to light by an independent report released by the Office of the Ombudsman in November 2020 after investigating the matter,” Chakwera said before announcing the sacking of Commissioner of Disaster Management Affairs James Chiusiwa and co-chairperson of the Presidential TaskForce on Covid Dr John Phuka.

The President also admitted that Covid clusters—important teams that should champion the fight against the pandemic at lower levels—were poorly led and required “corrective measures”.

His experience is typical of how several public officers conduct themselves. They take their work so flippantly and sometimes ignore important precepts because it is an entrenched habit that has been pardoned by their superiors for so long.

President’s shock

Visibly shocked by the deportment of the officers, Chakwera wondered how the cluster heads were conducting themselves in their ‘normal’ workplaces if they could blatantly ignore his directive that they should submit funds usage reports within 48 hours.

But then, a president getting shocked at the conduct of their officers, who are showing clear signs of negligence and lack of preparation, is not an issue. It is the action after that shock that matters.

After all, previous presidents have been ignored by public officers before and everything has unobtrusively faded with time. That is why more was anticipated from Chakwera—a leader whose campaign to the top seat had largely ridden on the back of a terribly troubled nation seeking someone to make things better.

“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.

“The suspensions will pave the way for a full forensic audit, which the National Audit Office has already 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 said.

Push for real action

That is what a president who is really in charge of a state’s affairs should do, commented some observers who had been pushing for ‘real action’ beyond warnings and threats.

And because, there are strong fears that the Covid funds were grossly abused, Malawians are also eagerly waiting for deeper corrective measures beyond the suspensions.

Chakwera’s plan to include other players in the taskforce, such as the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and the Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) to prevent the pilferage appears to make sense in a nation whose public and private officers salivate at every opportunity to steal.

Accountability lapses that have so far been discovered require some immediate control actions. That is where the ACB becomes an important player.

Of course, there are those who believe engaging the graft-busting body in the taskforce may systematically stifle its power and authority to deal with corruption.

“It is most improper for the President to compromise the [ACB] and [MHRC] by including them in the Covid committee. The President’s reasoning for their inclusion is either faulty or outright suspicious.

“It is obvious that the President wants to gag the two independent institutions. There is no way an oversight body, such as the ACB, should be placed in a situation where, if something should go wrong in the Covid committee, the ACB would be investigating itself and arrest itself,” Democratic Progressive Party spokesperson on Legal Affairs Bright Msaka said in response to Chakwera’s announcement.

‘Prevention is better than cure’

But those who hold with Chakwera’s directive are, instead, faulting Msaka for ignoring the concept that ACB’s role to prevent corruption and bribery from occurring in the first place should be more pronounced.

The anti-corruption institution, some legal experts argue, should not wait for crimes to be committed so that it should pounce on suspects when it has opportunities to stop any shady dealings from proceeding.

Lawyer Thabo Chakaka Nyirenda said ACB’s corruption prevention unit involves nipping corruption in the bud.

“Hon Msaka seems to be obsessed too much with enforcement pillars. He ignores prevention pillars. The old adage says prevention is better than cure. Hon Msaka has missed this,” Nyirenda said.

His sentiments are similar to those aired by another lawyer, Gift Nankhuni, who backed Chakwera’s strategy, saying ACB officers who, if placed in the taskforce, choose to act contrary to their mandate, will have to be prosecuted as individuals.

“It is sad that the corruption prevention department of ACB is not given the prominence it deserves. We are better off nipping corruption in the bud than letting it happen,” Nankhuni said.

Perhaps, the President’s decision to include ACB in the taskforce will also help in raising the profile of the graft-busting body’s corruption prevention unit. More public schemes might be willing to adopt the arrangement, especially where the risk of corruption is perceptibly high.

The bigger problem

Towards the end of his address, Chakwera talked about addressing what he termed a bigger problem. He said the rot in relation to the Covid funds goes deeper than what is seen now and that for it to be rooted out, there is a need for system overhaul.

The President believes there are bad or old laws, policies and contracts cleverly designed to facilitate waste, abuse and theft and going further to protect those who engage in such acts from being fired or prosecuted.

“To clean up the system as a whole, we must conduct a comprehensive review and overhaul of the three government systems of allowances, of procurement and of employment contracts. That is the public sector reform that this country needs most urgently,” he said.

Chakwera then went ahead to delegate Chilima who, together with a special taskforce and in consultation with him (Chakwera), will review the three government systems and submit recommendations for their overhaul.

For a seriously troubled public sector, perhaps such an overhaul to save public resources that are at the mercy of officers who seem to have little to stop them is long overdue.

Otherwise, at least finally, the President has spoken, acted and ordered more action in a bid to ultimately cleanse a system damned with officers salivating at every penny that comes their way.

And Malawians, who are still waiting for that radical change, have just had their vigilance heightened. They are the witnesses of promises made, actions undertaken and actions initiated.

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