Britain has rejected an explanation by Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) regarding expenditure of K15 422 756 (about $22 500) between July 2012 and December 2014 and plainly told the electoral body it suspects the money was stolen.
Minutes of a Malawi Electoral Cycle Support (Mecs) Project Steering Committee meeting held on January 19 2016 in Lilongwe attended by donors, directors in government departments who included the Attorney General Kalekeni Kaphale, Solicitor General Janet Banda, civil society organisations (CSOs) representatives and Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Goodall Gondwe show that MEC chairperson Maxon Mbendera told the meeting that the money was used in legitimate expenditures.
However, according to the minutes seen by The Nation, British High Commissioner Michael Nevin rejected the explanation and reaffirmed its position that it had lost confidence in some MEC officials and now demanded action.
Reads the minutes: “The UK [United Kingdom] thanked the MEC chairperson for the explanation. He [representative of Britain at the meeting] noted, however, that the UK does not hold a similar level of confidence that nothing has been stolen and that issues remain unresolved as reflected in the MEC response.
“The UK highlighted that there are numerous concerns over process and judgement, illustrating concerns over recruitment and nepotism.
“The UK reflected on the MEC concern that their responses had not been fully considered by auditors, but asserted that the ST [Secretary to the Treasury] correspondence reflected that they had been taken on board.
“The UK emphasised that they found the exchange of issues to reflect a critical lack of confidence in the integrity of key individuals and that actions are required.”
During the meeting, the minutes show, United States of America Deputy Ambassador Michael Gonzales is quoted as having said: “The US highlighted that the standard is not simply one of theft. The US asserted that the audit reflected a wanton disregard for good practice, which, if not addressed in the MEC’s subsequent managerial actions, will fail to recognise the serious failures of senior administration.”
In response, according to the minutes, Mbendera, who is also a judge of the Malawi Supreme Court of Appeal, acknowledged that there was flouting of the rules, but maintained there was no theft.
United Nations (UN) resident coordinator Mia Seppo, who co-chaired the meeting, said the meeting was interested to see action to be undertaken by MEC.
“The SC [steering committee] is not interested in the specific details of the audit, but would rather be informed on the actions to be taken by the MEC,” the minutes quote Seppo as having said.
She encouraged the MEC chairperson to engage with the ST to find a mutually acceptable way forward for concrete actions to be considered and taken, and to be reported on in the next SC.
Responding to Seppo’s observation, Mbendera maintained there was no theft.
Revelations in the minutes come against a background of reports of financial mismanagement at MEC which in January this year prompted President Peter Mutharika to caution the electoral body to guard against denting its image.
Last year, the media quoted an audit report by the Central Internal Audit Unit in the Ministry of Finance which exposed fraud at MEC involving secretariat staff and some commissioners through, among others, dubious claims for field allowances for trips not undertaken.
However, Mbendera, at the time, blamed the media for having spread what he described as unsubstantiated reports, referred to by the President, of massive looting at MEC.
He said apparently MEC had defended itself over the audit queries and that the auditors and the government could not challenge the query responses provided by MEC.