Last Sunday President Lazarus Chakwera started cracking the whip—so to speak—on his Tonse Alliance ‘clearing the rubble’ campaign promise. This is over the abuse of the K6.2 billion Covid-19 Response funds. The President dropped Ken Kandodo as Minister of Labour. Several people have also been arrested on suspicion that they were involved in the mismanagement of the money.
As of Thursday, the number of those arrested had risen to 46. A majority of those arrested are officials from district councils. Others are from the Office of the President and Cabinet, government ministries and businesspersons.
Some are being accused of conspiring to defraud the government through dubious claims; others for flouting procurement procedures and abuse of office in the way the officials awarded contracts.
Chakwera fired Kandodo from his Cabinet for using Covid-19 funds—about K613 000—part of the money his ministry received from the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19, a state visit to South Africa. The ministry is said to have replaced the money. According to Chakwera, Kandodo’s wrongdoing is that the money he, alongside his principal secretary, used on the trip was not available for Covid-19 purposes during the period he used it. In government this is called Virement—an administrative transfer of budgetary funds—where money in one vote is borrowed and then replaced later. Ministries, Departments and agencies (MDAs) are, however, supposed to seek authorisation from Treasury to borrow money from one vote for use in another. This, we are told, the Ministry of Labour did not do.
There is a strong temptation to also think that as Cabinet minister Kandodo failed to discharge his duties in accordance with the mandate of his position because he should not have allowed his ministry to use the money for the purpose it was used without following the laid down procedures.
But we are constrained against going on that path by the fact that President Chakwera had a few weeks earlier not fired Cabinet minister Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda who is co-chair of the Presidential Task Force on Covid-19 when Covid-19 funds were mismanaged. This, we understand, is because she is not the controlling officer of the funds the presidential task force handles. Instead the President only fired the technocrat, co-chair of the task force Dr John Phuka, who was the controlling officer of the funds for the mismanagement of the money.
Going by the same principle and having already set a precedent, we are of the view that President Chakwera should not have punished Kandodo who, like Chiponda, was not the controlling officer in the ministry. The officer to be punished instead in this case should have been the principal secretary who is the controlling officer.
The question that we are asking is why the President is changing goal posts. Why he reacted differently to a similar ‘offence’?
In fact, the Chiponda/Phuka case was a more serious ‘crime’ than the one over which Kandodo was fired given also that while in the former issue hundreds of millions of Kwacha were mismanaged, in the latter, the money (just a fraction of the same K6.2 billion) was actually replaced.
Would it mean we got it wrong on why the President spared Khumbize Chiponda and only fired Phuka? Most unlikely. Or is it that Kandodo is just a sacrificial lamb where the President is trying to respond to criticisms about the composition of his Cabinet that it was bloated with siblings and spouses? We can only speculate. Only the President knows why he fired Kandodo.
But one thing that is very clear is that the President has been very hard on the former Cabinet minister and legislator for Kasungu Central who may not even have known that the funds he used as allowances when he travelled to South Africa on an official function were borrowed from the Covid-19 Response Vote.
From this experience, the President is, from now onwards, placing on Cabinet ministers the task of ensuring that they follow the money in their ministry down to every Kwacha.
On another note there are criticisms about the arrests that they should have been done after thorough investigations and not on the basis of the findings of the audit report on which the 46 have been nailed. One only hopes the arrests won’t be just a road show.