Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said the Auditor General’s (AG) position has stayed unfilled for too long, saying the development creates uncertainty at a critical governance institution.
PAC’s other concern—according to the committee’s chairperson Shadric Namalomba—is that there is government’s audits being challenged.
The office fell vacant in June 2018, when Stephenson Kamphasa’s contract expired.
The former AG played a critical role in exposing Cashgate––in the plunder of public resources that a forensic audit said cost the taxpayer as much as K236 billion in the five years leading up to December 2014.
Former president Peter Mutharika’s previous pick to replace Kamphasa was Harold Mwala, but his name was withdrawn after a public outcry that the recruitment process was flawed, among other reasons.
During the past two years, the National Audit Office (NAO) has been headed by two acting AGs, who are only mandated to be in that position for six months, according to the amended Public Audit Act of 2018, Section 5(b) (1).
The section is paraphrased to mean that where the office of AG becomes vacant, the Civil Service Commission shall recommend the most senior officer in NAO to the President to designate such a person as acting AG.
Namalomba said government is breaking the Audit Act with the prolonged delays to hire an AG.
He said: “It is inconceivable, as PAC, we recommend to the appointing authorities to expedite the process. We risk people challenging the work of the acting AGs in the event that they are in office beyond the stipulated six months.”
Namalomba added that by end of July this financial year, the acting AG Thomas Makiwa would have clocked six months, and beyond that, any reports under him could be challenged.
In the event that Makiwa is in office beyond July, then the Executive will be in breach of Section 184 of the Constitution, which states: “There shall be office of the Auditor General who shall audit and report on the public accounts of Malawi” mandated to submit reports to Parliament at least once a year.
This is the second time Makiwa was appointed as acting AG, after he served in the office early 2019 and was replaced by Joseph Nangantani, whose appointment was rejected by Parliament.
Another auditor, Rexie Chiluzi, also served as acting AG last year.
In a separate interview, Public Appointments Committee of Parliament chairperson Joyce Chitsulo said the AG’s office now lacks long-term strategic direction, and bold decision-making as the office-holders are temporary.
“A person in acting capacity is not sure of his or her future and such people shy away from making bold decisions, which is a recipe for poor management,” she said.
Institute of Chartered Accountants in Malawi (Icam) chief executive officer Francis Chinjoka Gondwe, in an interview, indicated that they made some proposals in 2019 to amend the Public Audit Act, arguing that in its current state it is discriminatory as “the bar is too high for most government auditors to compete for position of AG”.
He explained that one requirement in the amended Public Audit Act is for the successful candidate to have a practising certificate.
But the Icam CEO said there is currently no auditor with a practising certificate in government, therefore, the position is only open to people in the private sector.
“Most people in the private sector shun the position as it is not well-paying. That is why, as Icam, we proposed a transitional arrangement that the position should also be open to members of Icam and officers from NAO can be invited to sit for examinations and this would mean that in the next three to four years the country will have a pool of qualified auditors for the job,” he said.
Gondwe said the proposals Icam made to Treasury are being scrutinised by the Office of the Secretary to the President and Cabinet, and Ministry of Justice.
The proposed Act states that in the event of a vacancy in the office of the AG, Minister of Finance shall publish in the Gazette and at least in two newspapers of widest circulation in Malawi.
Then the minister shall appoint a panel to shortlist and conduct interviews to select a minimum of two, and a maximum of three, candidates for the position, which shall be submitted to the President.
When asked to comment on the delays to hire a new AG, Treasury spokesperson Williams Banda said government submitted names of Harold Mwala and Joseph Nangantani, but were not approved by Parliament.
“The position will be re-advertised and that the process has started,” he said.