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K6.2bn demos on April 29 as HRDC demands arrests in Covid-19 funds abuse

By Watipaso Mzungu

Honeymoon is over for the Tonse Alliance-led government, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) has declared and Malawians should brace for fiercest nationwide protests, as citizens demand transparency and accountability in the expenditure of the K6.2 billion Covid-19 funds.

HRDC chairperson Gift Trapence told journalists in Lilongwe on Friday afternoon that the first demonstration is scheduled to take place on 29 April 2021 and is aimed at forcing the government to arrest officials implicated in the plunder of the funds.

In a statement issued ahead of a press briefing held in Lilongwe this afternoon, the coalition says it has read and analyzed, with absolute dismay, the Investigative Report on the Usage and Accountability of the K6.2 billion Covid-19 disbursement as presented by the National Audit Office.

“From the general operations, the report shows just how rotten the government system is. What is apparent from the looting is that we are not dealing with bad apples, we are dealing with a rotten tree. What is worrying is that these are the same public officials that are entrusted with public funds, and not only Covid-19 funds. If there were able to loot K6.2 billion with such reckless abandon, one wonders what they do with the other public funds. The fact that there were audit queries in all the departments that received Covid-19 funds is telling in itself,” reads the statement, which HRDC chairperson Gift Trapence and his national coordinator Luke Tembo have co-signed with other executive members.

They say after the Cashgate scandal, one would have thought that the systems in the use of public funds would be strengthened, but it seems that the free-for-all looting is going on unabated.

The firebrand human rights defenders allege that public servants looted funds using ghost activities, ghost companies, disbursement of fuel for activities that were non-existent.

Among others, HRDC cites the contract the government awarded to Pest Chem IB to fumigate government buildings at a total cost of K97 million.

According to the coalition, what is troubling about this contract is the decision by the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) to use a private fumigation company when the Lilongwe District Council had the capacity to carry out the work.

“Further, it is noted that the materials for fumigation were provided for by government, which does not justify the use of a private company. Also, for one job, Pest Chem IB were paid K26 million for a job that normally costs K1.5 million. Additionally, in March 2021, the Immigration Department gave a contract to supply K5.7 million PPE materials through an evidently flawed and dubious process. The supplier, a Mrs Memory Mhango was handpicked to supply the PPE materials even though she was not a qualified supplier of goods. The department also flouted government’s procurement procedures by using the RFQ process instead of the recommended open tendering method,” alleges the statement.

“What is worrying, on our part, is that all this looting was happening as scores of Malawians were gasping for air in the COVID-19 isolation wards in our public hospitals as they struggled to meet the demand for oxygen. Tragically, the country lost a number of frontline workers who put themselves in harm’s way, even though they lacked the vital PPE materials that would have protected them and kept them off harm’s way. as we have pondered before, how many lives would we have saved had this country used these vital resources for their intended purposes? The looting, as exposed in the audit report, was systematic and evidently methodical, which supports our premise that the rot in the public service is endemic. Across board in all departments, the nature of the abuse was similar to suggest either collusion or that the system of looting public funds across the civil service is in this manner is normal practice,” they add.

The coalition has thus recommended an overhaul of the civil service, arguing that the civil service is rotten to the core and needs to be cut to allow for a fresh plant to grow in its place.

They further argue that these are the same government officers that have been involved in the looting of public funds over the past decades.

“This is no secret. We have had so many financial scandals in the public service that have turned this country into a crime scene. So, our position as HRDC is that if the current government does not clear the rubble, as they promised to during the campaign trail, then this rot will continue to go on for generations to come. We need to clear the civil service now! We demand that the Malawi Police Service, the Office of the Director of Public Officers Declarations, alongside law enforcement agencies, investigate the companies that benefited from unlawful procurements. Our recommendation is that the guilty companies should be blacklisted and delisted from public procurement. Added to that, we recommend that the Office of the Director of Public Officers Declarations, the Anti-Corruption Bureau and other agencies investigate how some companies that are not registered with the ODPOD were given public contracts,” emphasizes the statement.

The HRDs are also surprised that a company called Kokoliko Dealers was awarded a K5.8 million contract to supply facemasks and hand sanitisers to the Ministry of Labour, yet a quick check on the list of companies registered with the ODPOD shows that Kokoliko Dealers in not registered to supply goods to public institutions.

“Government should strengthen its procurement systems to ensure that they put an end to this looting. aMalawi atopa ndikubedwa kwa ndalama za boma. We cannot continue like this as a country. This level of looting is unacceptable and we have to ensure that people’s taxes are used prudently. Malawians work through their noses to pay for these taxes and it is painful when they see civil servants wantonly share their hard-earned money with little regard or concern,” they stress.

Meanwhile, HRDC has demanded an establishment of a special court to deal with this fraud, emphasizing that a quick resolution and prosecution of culprits in this case will send a clear and resolute message to the civil servants on how quick the wheels of justice work.

“Otherwise, we will have a scenario such as the Cashgate cases where, eight years down the line, some cases have yet to be tried. This makes a mockery of the justice system,” says the coalition.

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