The advent of multiparty democracy in 1994 did not only change the conduct of the country’s politics, but also the conduct of other aspects of life. There have been elapses in the way we manage things such as security, energy and construction industry.
In this era, a structure can be put up and one has to count fingers before cracks start to develop. But what is worrying is the cost of that building. You wonder whether it was built with materials from Mars.
Roads are the same. When a 100 kilometre road is being constructed, by the time the contractor tars the other half, the first part develops potholes.
Government seems to be aware of this sub-standard work. When he commissioned the construction of the K84 million Dzumbu Bridge in Nkhotakota earlier this month, Transport and Public Works Minister Jappie Mhango warned contractors against carrying out substandard work.
Mhango observed that government spends a lot of money on projects, but they result in people getting raw deals.
These stories were unheard of during the multiparty democracy. During the time, houses and roads were built with precision and quality was the order of the day.
Structures like Chayamba and Delamere in Blantyre that were constructed long time ago look as if they were completed yesterday.
The Chikangawa Road is another example. This road was built during the one party State, but it is almost intact.
Yet several buildings and roads that were constructed during the multiparty era are in a sorry state. What is irritating is that no one is made to account for the shoddy work.
Civil society activist Moses Mkandawire of Church and Society Programme of the Livingstonia CCAP Synod attributed the weak infrastructure to corruption.
“Multiparty democracy has brought corruption where consultants who are supposed to supervise the work receive kickbacks to play cool. Some consultants even start their own companies so that they siphon money from construction projects,” he said.
Mkandawire also blames the quality of people and companies that are assigned to do construction works. He said this starts from university education where he feels engineers are not well trained to handle works that require quality emphasis.
He also said some incapable contractors are given works to do because they have bribed someone. Mkandawire said if quality and honest contractors were employed, the country’s infrastructure could have been like those in Swaziland and Zambia.
“Even foreigners that come here to do construction works need to be vetted to avoid the situation that we see ourselves in. For example, the Karonga-Chitipa Road was built a few years ago, but look at its status now. I am, however, impressed with the quality of the Mzuzu-Nkhata Bay Road,” said Mkandawire.
The civil society leader blames the politicisation of projects where quality does not matter, so long a project has been carried out and someone has scored political points. Mkandawire attributed this to lack of ownership philosophy.
“Sometimes we behave like Malawi is a borrowed country where we can do whatever we want to damage it. We lack ownership philosophy,” he said.
On the pre-multiparty democracy era, the activist said people feared former president Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda and would not dare engage in corrupt activities otherwise they would face jail.
But Malawi Institute of Engineers (MIE), a professional body of engineers in the country, disputed the fact that the current engineers are not up to the job.
Its president Wilson Chirwa blamed project owners for twisting the arms of engineers.
“Take, for example, the case of one of the country’s councils which was building a road. It ignored specifications the engineers provided because it wanted a longer road which meant cheaper materials.
We have qualified engineers who know their job, but when their advices are ignored, there is nothing they can do since the final say are with the owners of the projects,” he said.
Chirwa bemoaned the tendency of some project owners of ignoring contractors who have rightful equipment and personnel and go to unqualified ones because they want cheaper work.
Lecturer of engineering at the Polytechnic, a constituent college of the University of Malawi Dr Ignasio Ngoma said a number of things in the construction industry have changed resulting in poor infrastructure.
“These include system of carrying out infrastructure construction from a force account [in-house] to contracting out [use of contractors] for all public/government projects, the increase of consultants and contractors who have various motives, procurement system, materials supply industry and certification and the regulation of the construction industry,” he said.
Ngoma said that what have changed are not the engineers or consultants towards standards and quality, but the system of supervision.
“In the in-house system, supervision was done by the owner who would also be required to provide reasons for early failures of infrastructure. Today, most failures are not followed up by consultants to come and justify such failures hence, many projects being seen failing pre-maturely. I therefore point to failure of system of delivery,” he said, adding that democracy should be used to correct the system failures.
Ngoma called for the review of legal instruments, including the registration of consultants and contractors, procurement law and project financing.
“There should be stiff punishment to non-performing contractors and consultants to avoid swindling government of taxpayer money,” he said. n