In a move that defies the gospel of austerity and expenditure control the Joyce Banda administration has been preaching, government has made a U-turn on the decision to sell 22 ministerial Mercedes Benz, saying it is more economical to use them for high profile engagements than hiring or buying a new fleet.
This contradicts what President Banda said in 2012 when announcing the decision to dispose of the luxurious E-Class Mercedes Benz that selling the vehicles would save millions in maintenance costs.
The decision has riled civil society activist Billy Mayaya who said it is an insult to Malawians who are paying the bills to keep the vehicles going at a time public service delivery is erratic.
Now government says it is cheaper to use the vehicles to help the President meet her commitments as chairperson of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc).
Spokesperson of the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) Arthur Chipenda said in the wake of the Sadc Heads of State and Government Summit that Malawi hosted in August 2013, government felt it was prudent to keep the vehicles and use them for other high profile functions.
“The decision to retain the vehicles was viewed to be very economical for the country and government because if the vehicles were sold off then Malawi as a host country of the Sadc summit was expected to either buy or hire Mercedes Benz vehicles from South Africa which could have proved too costly for government than using the vehicles which were already in government’s possession.
“The Sadc Secretariat has standard requirements of equipment and vehicles to be availed by the host country and Mercedes Benz vehicles are the standard vehicles requirement for use by all VVIPs. It was cheaper for Malawi to use the Mercedes Benz fleet it already has than buy new ones or hire from South Africa,” said Chipenda.
He said government is saving ‘substantial resources’ by using the vehicles. But Chipenda could not provide information on the savings.
He said the Mercedes Benz fleet was withdrawn from Cabinet ministers when government adopted the One Vehicle Policy for Ministers. Chipenda said currently, ministers use Toyota Prado TX.
“The actual number of running Mercedes Benz vehicles that government owns is 17. Initially, they were 22 vehicles but the five vehicles were involved in accidents,” he said.
Director of the Private Vehicle Hire Organisation (PVHO), Jomo Mkandawire, said the Mercedes Benz are being kept at their premises in Lilongwe and have not been used since the Sadc meeting.
“We are keeping the vehicles for the OPC. The cost of maintenance is borne by the OPC, we have no mandate as to what would happen to the vehicles,” said Mkandawire.
Mayaya said President Banda continues to make statements “full of inconsistency and untruths.”
He said it is “extremely appalling that she told barefaced lies to the nation that the said vehicles” would be sold to cut expenses only to backtrack.
In June 2012, UK international development secretary Andrew Mitchell applauded President Banda for deciding to sell the Mercedes Benz fleet and the presidential jet, saying she had sent a signal of her intent and priorities at a time of financial austerity in Malawi and Britain.
“The importance of an African leader giving up the jet and Mercedes is iconic,” said Mitchell.