Malawi Council of Churches (MCC), the umbrella body for 25 major Protestant churches in the country, is down on its knees, slumped by much more than its characteristic love for prayer postures and honesty.
MCC has been partly paralysed by what may be termed as an uncharacteristic fraud case involving over K6 million ($11 009.17) that has seen its general secretary the Reverend Dr. Osborne Joda Mbewe and project manager Godfrey Mkandawire fired.
Mbewe and Mkandawire were fired in July this year on account of “financial irregularities” at MCC after a forensic audit, instituted by the Norwegian Church Aid (NCA), a major donor for some of the MCC projects.
Yesterday, Mbewe told The Nation in Lilongwe that he has taken MCC to the Industrial Relations Court (IRC), saying he was unfairly dismissed.
MCC office records show that before termination of their employment contracts, Mbewe and Mkandawire faced an MCC disciplinary hearing where they were asked to defend themselves and respond to a number of the forensic audit queries.
The queries mainly centered on their poor leadership that allegedly included flouting key accounting procedures such as unauthorised inter-banking and the abuse of funds without properly accounting for allowances and fuel purchases for them and their fellow employees.
“Yes, as you had heard, I can confirm that after the disciplinary hearing, the MCC finally decided to part ways with the general secretary and the projects manager in July this year,” said Bishop Gilford Matonga, an MCC board member who was chosen to replace Mbewe and is doubling as acting general secretary.
Office records show that the fraud case also involved several members of staff, who have since been paying back the abused funds. The records indicate that NCA stopped direct aid to MCC and demanded a full refund of its money if the church organisation is ever to be considered for the NCA direct funding again.
Matonga admitted that the NCA funding withdrawal has been a big blow to the MCC, particularly concerning a special project connected to monitoring and civic education efforts related to last year’s general elections in Malawi.
MCC was one of the faith-based organisations that wanted to promote a credible and fair election campaign and correct procedures during the elections. As a rights-based and faith-based organisation, NCA found it logical to support these efforts.
Yet another MCC project that begged accountability issues earlier concerned a pro-peace church response to the Lake Malawi border wrangle between Malawiand Tanzania.
The project— coordinated by MCC, but also involving the Evangelical Association of Malawi (EAM) and the Episcopal Conference of Malawi (ECM)—had facilitated only one meeting in Mangochi in 2013, among a series of meetings planned.
The office records indicate that although MCC auditors, Graham Carr, consistently pointed out, in annual audits, the need for the MCC leadership to adhere to strict financial management procedures, it appeared that the advice was not fully implemented, as some unauthorised and unaccounted-for transactions still emerged.
In November last year, the MCC board was reportedly shocked to learn about NCA’s letter notification of its suspension of its direct aid because of its dissatisfaction over the church organisation’s handling of its project funds, to the extent that the donor was demanding a forensic audit.
Matonga said MCC is now into its recovery and healing processes and is determined to win back the NCA trust and confidence that was lost through the scam.
He said: “As MCC, we have fully owned up to all our blunders and we have been effecting corrective measures.”
But yesterday, Mbewe said he has taken MCC to court because he feels he was treated unjustly on many fronts, including how the organisation based its final decision to fire him on the forensic audit report, aspects of which he disputes.
He said the issue of inter-banking and inter-borrowing of the donor funds was “deliberately blown out of proportion,” or misunderstood, because the systems were flexible, since the funds were used on related work financed by the same donor, NCA.
Mbewe also questioned the fairness of the disciplinary hearing he was subjected to, saying he feels most of the explanations he gave over the forensic audit queries appeared to have been ignored, “to fulfill an agenda to dismiss me”.
In his comments on the matter, NCA country representative Stein Villumstad confirmed his organisation had both suspended its direct aid to MCC and also demanded that the mismanaged funds be refunded.
He explained that NCA considers MCC as a long-standing partner in serving needy Malawians through various projects the two organisations have been running over the years.
This year, NCA’s budget is K3.5 billion ($6.4million), of which the biggest portion is within the health sector with the Christian Health Association of Malawi (Cham) and its member institutions as the main partner.
The NCA boss said since his organisation started its work in Malawi in 2002, it has encountered “some few cases of mismanagement of funds” among some of its local development partners.
But he stressed that NCA always takes strict corrective steps to prevent these financial and administrative irregularities by promoting transparency, monitoring and evaluation, high professional standards and capacity building at both corporate and individual levels.