Malawi President Joyce Bandaâ€™s large entourage of Cabinet ministers on her internal travels have cost taxpayers an estimated K160 million (about $640 000) in four months and could bleed up to K360 million (about $1.4 million) more in the current financial year if unchecked.
Weekend Nationâ€™s review of presidential travel since her ascension to power in April this year shows that she has made 37 local trips from Lilongwe, which is the operational base of Cabinet ministers.
Of these trips, 18 were outside the Central Region, about four within the Central Region but outside Lilongwe and around 15 trips within the capital city.
The Lilongwe travels include the seven round trips to the airport on foreign tours, but where most Cabinet ministers, principal secretaries and heads of parastastals escort her to have their presence noted and shake the Presidentâ€™s hand before driving back to their Capital Hill base hours later.
These trips and the accompanying brass, say watchdogs such as Malawi Health Equity Network (Mhen), eat into the officialsâ€™ productive time and drain taxpayersâ€™ money in fuel and allowances.
For example, when ministers and their deputies travel outside the Central Region for a one-day presidential function, they normally draw subsistence allowances for two days as they travel to that place a day earlier or return the following day.
The same applies to the body guards, personal assistants and drivers travelling with them.
With the revised K45Â 000 (about $180) and K39Â 600 (about $158) daily subsistence allowances for ministers and their deputies, respectively, and inclusion of fuel costs and allowances for the bodyguard, personal assistant and two drivers. It cost taxpayers about K250 000 (about $1 000) for one minister to escort Banda to the Ngonisâ€™ Umthetho annual celebrations in Mzimba on August 11. That sum included allowances for drivers, bodyguards and assistant.
Ministersâ€™ personal assistants are paid K15Â 000 (about $60) daily subsistence allowance while bodyguards and drivers get K6Â 000 (about $24) daily subsistence allowances, according to Weekend Nation findings.
At the recent fuel prices, the ministersâ€™ Mercedes Benz and Toyota Prado vehicles would consume between K60Â 000 (about $240) and K80 000 (about $320) fuel to and from places such as Mzuzu, Blantyre, Karonga and Zomba. This fuel includes local running costs.
When all 31 Cabinet ministers and their deputies attend functions in such places, excluding Minister of Health Khumbo Kachali who is the Vice-President and has a separate budget for his entourage, the ministers would spend roughly K9 million (about $36 000) to escort Banda, our calculations show.
For presidential functions within the Central Region such as installation of Paramount Chief Gomani V in Ntcheu, the ministers and their officers normally get allowances for one day as they mostly return the same day and use fuel worth about K35 000, depending on the distances to function venues, according to some ministers who corroborated our findings.
Overall, Weekend Nation estimates that of Bandaâ€™s 18 trips outside Lilongwe, Cabinet ministers may have so far drawn about K160 million from the public purse just to escort the President.
The money is more than the K100 million allocated in the current 2012/13 national budget towards construction of Phalombe District Hospital.
It is also more than the K100 million allocated in the same budget towards construction of the long-awaited national cancer centre.
Assuming Banda graces one function per week outside the Central Region and all her ministers attend, taxpayers would cough about K360 million to finance the Presidentâ€™s Cabinet entourage for over the remaining 10 months in the 2012/13 fiscal year, our calculations show.
Trim the size of entourage
Meanwhile, Mhen executive director Martha Kwataine, in a statement to the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC), has asked Banda to reduce the size of her Cabinet escort, saying the large entourage for the President is draining resources and paralysing operations of ministries.
Mhen has also faulted the presence of both the President and her Vice at State functions, saying one of the two would be enough to grace the occasions in an effort to cut government expenditure.
Kwataine said they also want Banda to withdraw the recent 80 percent hike of daily subsistence allowance for ministers from K25 000 to K45 000, saying the increase is unrealistic and would lead to further drain of limited public funds, considering the frequent travel of ministers for functions.
Human Rights Consultative Commission (HRCC) chairperson Undule Mwakasungula also said civil society organisations are worried over â€œunnecessaryâ€ expenditure government incurs when Cabinet ministers, top government officials and chiefs travel to all corners of the country escorting the President.
â€œSome of these officials go to the functions and do nothing, yet they have used a lot of resources to travel to the functions. It is a concern to see that wherever the President is, the Vice-President and all ministers are there.
â€œTraditional leaders travel from Chitipa to Nsanje just to attend a function. There is need for sanity in government. We are spending where we donâ€™t need to spend,â€ said Mwakasungula.
â€˜Ministers need to attend JBâ€™s functionsâ€™
But UDF president Friday Jumbe said on Friday there is no problem when all Cabinet ministers escort the President to functions, saying the trips are crucial for the entire Cabinet to appreciate peopleâ€™s suffering on the ground together with the Head of State.
â€œI have been a minister myself before. I canâ€™t prescribe the number of ministers that the President should be traveling with. If we accept that the President should have the Cabinet, then why should she not travel with the ministers on the ground?â€ said Jumbe.
He added that the President also needs ministers around to consult them on relevant issues at the functions.
Chief Secretary to Government Bright Msaka refused to comment on the calls for Banda, who has repeatedly pledged to cut spending, to reduce her Cabinet entourage to functions as a cost-cutting measure.
He referred Weekend Nation to Minister of Information and Civic Education Moses Kunkuyu who was said to be abroad.
Press secretary to the President, Steven Nhlane, said not all Cabinet ministers escort the President to functions.
â€œCabinet ministers and government officials already only attend presidential functions that relate to their field of work. It is not correct to say all Cabinet ministers attend all presidential functions. Just yesterday [Wednesday], the President was in Mchinji for the elevation of Senior Chief Mkanda.
â€œVery few Cabinet ministers were there. The same has been the case with all other functions. The President and Vice-Presidentâ€™s offices have budgets. The functions they attend together are funded from their officeâ€™s budgets,â€ said Nhlane.
He added: â€œAdditionally, the President is already doing a lot to make her austerity measures a reality. For example, she is travelling on commercial flights during foreign trips when all her counterparts in this region use presidential jets or chartered planes.â€
But a Cabinet minister said unless a minister is ill or outside the country, they are all expected to attend presidential functions.
The calls for Banda to cut costs when she travels internally follow recent criticism against the President for apparently reneging on her pledge to trim the presidential motorcade to a smaller size in the wake of austerity on government expenditure.