The Malawi Local Government Association (Malga) is wary of the scatter-gun arrests catalysed by startling audit findings on the K6.2 billion funding for Covid-19 response. The association suspects that local councils may be sacrificial lambs in the plunder but warns that it is watching. Our News Analyst SUZGO CHITETE speaks to Malga acting executive director Hadrod Mkandawire.
What’s your take on the audit which has revealed that some councils grossly abused funds?
Malga commends the central government for instituting the forensic audit into the alleged abuse, theft and mismanagement of the K6.2 billion Covid-19 funds. Further, Malga welcomes the findings which have clearly demonstrated that indeed the Covid-19 funds were abused in one way or the other both at the central and local government levels. Malga joins the call to have all suspects involved in this malpractice brought to book, including those from the local governments. However, we deduce from the report that of the K1.2 billion that was transferred to the local governments that 95 percent was properly utilised and in accordance with the public finance management legal framework. The remaining five percent queries predominantly relate to misprocurement and liquidated expenditure. However, we accept there is a small percentage from the five percent where indeed reasonable elements of theft and abuse of resources exist. This is normal in any public expenditure. The picture I have given you is contrary to the perception the central government and the public had before the audit.
You were once uncomfortable with the interdiction of all controlling officers in councils. Having read the audit report, aren’t the interdictions justifiable?
The report has clearly demonstrated that the district commissioners and chief executive officers of local councils were used as sacrificial lambs for personal convenience of some actors at the central government. The findings vindicate our earlier argument that the central government rushed to interdict controlling officers of local government authorities en masse. The report clearly indicates that it was not necessary to interdict all controlling officers from the local governments as 14 local councils have no audit quarries and others have issues which did not necessarily require interdiction of a controlling officer. For example, Nsanje District Council had not yet accessed the Covid–19 funds at the time of the interdictions.
Controlling officers have been on interdiction beyond the President’s prescribed period. How has this affected service delivery in councils?
It’s sad and regrettable that even after the audit report has cleared some DCs and CEOs, the central government instead of reinstating them and calling the rest to clear themselves from the audit queries, Capital Hill remains quiet as if all is normal in local councils.
For the past two months all the local councils but one have been operating without substantive controlling officers and the acting officers in charge of councils do not have appointment letters to-date. In such a scenario, you cannot rule out a leadership vacuum in some councils. Secretariat leadership is critical for effective service delivery in the councils. We are seriously surprised by the central government’s deafening silence on the matter. We don’t know the motive behind keeping DCs and CEOs on interdiction unreasonably longer after the release of the report. This is clearly an unfair labour practice and violation of rights of the interdicted officers.
For those accused of abusing public resources, how do you ensure that justice is served without victimising anyone innocent?
We are following every step the central government is taking on this issue. Let me assure all interdicted DCs and CEOs who are not in the wrong that if someone somewhere is planning to victimise them, they will not walk alone. Meanwhile we call upon the central government that all controlling officers and other staff whose councils have outstanding queries, before any further action is taken against them, they should be accorded an opportunity to be heard on the audit queries. The right to be heard is provided for under Section 43 of the Constitution. Malga is not shielding any local government officer who is reasonably suspected of committing a crime in the Covid–19 funds saga. However, we have observed some officers from local governments have been arrested just for the police to tick boxes, which is quite unfortunate.
A public perception is widespread that corruption is rampant in councils. Is this the case?
There is indeed corruption in local councils as is the case with the rest of public institutions in Malawi. However, the Covid–19 audit gives you the difference between the reality and public perception. The report gives a picture of where corruption, theft and abuse of public resources are rampant between the centre and local levels. For so long, the central government has used the few cases of corruption in local councils as a scapegoat to financially suffocate the local councils and the recent budget analysis by Malawi Human Rights Commission buttresses this argument.