The Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development has embarked on a campaign to clean councils of theft and corruption. So far, a number of officers in district councils have been arrested on allegations of embezzling public funds. These include two officials in Lilongwe who are alleged to have misappropriated over K120 million part of which was for deceased estate. Our News Analyst SUZGO CHITETE engages minister responsible Ben Phiri to learn more about the campaign. Excerpts:
What prompted you to embark on this campaign?
To begin with, service delivery in councils is the responsibility of my ministry and with decentralisation, we are talking of all public services at district level; agriculture, health, education and all that concerns local government. So, to ensure that there is effective service delivery for the benefit of people, we need to be prudent in our spending, deal with leakages and see to it that we spend taxpayers’ money for its intended purpose. That is number one. Number two, we have had a history where people complained about service delivery in councils and corruption was identified as a contributing factor.
In recent months, we have seen your ministry uncovering some syndicates and a number of council officials have been arrested, so far what are the indications?
We are using two approaches; number one is to prevent. While we are preventing, we are also investigating corrupt activities that may have happened in the past to make sure that we recover what we can. This far, we have positive indications. We have gained donor confidence and they are willing to support councils as it is only through councils that people can benefit from public services.
How serious is corruption or mismanagement of public funds in councils?
I must be quick to mention that you cannot run away from the fact that there is corruption. And we are ready to stamp out corruption. It is not just a matter of political rhetoric, but we are serious about it. It is not just corruption that we are dealing with, we are also tackling mismanagement and misappropriation of funds, theft and we are also interested in audit queries. We want to deepen a culture where officers follow rules and regulations such as the Public Finance Management Act and the Audit Act just to cite some.
In curbing misappropriation, as a ministry have you considered instituting an investigative audit of all councils?
Yes, we have deployed auditors across the country. Of course we are prioritising councils where we have been tipped [that there is corruption]. Because of shortage of staff, they cannot be in all 35 councils at one time. So, we are focusing more on where we have received some red flags, but we will get to all councils eventually. So far, we have officials arrested in Mwanza, Lilongwe, Mangochi, Dedza, Nkhotakota and so many other places and we are leaving no stone unturned. We are targeting all; whether it is a politician or civil servant as long as it is public money, we will go after them.
If you look at most of the cases that you have uncovered, they have been going on for years, is the problem lack of control mechanisms?
It is total stupidity. How do you misuse deceased estate? For goodness sake. where is your conscience? Another reason is a deep-seated syndrome in government where civil servants sometimes think it is government money therefore, they can misuse it. This is the people’s money. The moment we realise that that is public money, we shall do better. Again, it is because government has not been biting so they were getting away with it. We are under instructions from the President to curtail this forthwith. During his [first] five years in office, he preached against corruption and people said there is no action, so we are now acting.
I know your ministry is quite key in terms of local development but is there a conversation to replicate this initiative in other ministries since you said you are under instruction from the President?
It is a message the President has sent across all ministries, but strategies differ. This is our strategy. You may wish to appreciate that people complain more about councils because they directly deal with people on the ground. So, a number of public services go through councils to the people; hence, the focus on councils and this is why we are leading the way.