First Lady Gertrude Mutharika has taken an entourage of seven aides on a 10-day trip to the United Kingdom (UK) to attend the graduation of her son, draining at least K30 million from public coffers.
The First Lady left Malawi on Monday on South African Airways through Kamuzu International Airport in Lilongwe for the graduation of her son Tadikira Mafubza this Friday. He is graduating from the University of Greenwich with a master of science in civil engineering.
While the First Lady is entitled to government-funded external travel, taxpayers will foot accommodation, air tickets and allowances for her entourage.
Sources confided in Nation Online that Mutharika is accompanied by seven State Residences officials, including security, who have taken K315 000 ($420) each per day for the 10 days. The allowances translate to K3.1 million per individual and K22 million for the seven for 10 days.
The sources said the allowances do not include the First Lady’s entitlement and accommodation for the entourage, meaning that the amount could be higher as an average air ticket from Malawi to London is pegged at K900 000 which adds up to K7.2 million for the whole team. However, the amount could be higher as fares vary from one airline to another.
State House has confirmed that the First Lady has left for the UK, but said her delegation comprises seven officials because it is cheaper to take Malawian professionals than hiring some from that side.
In a written response, President Peter Mutharika’s press secretary Mgeme Kalilani on Monday confirmed that seven State House officials have accompanied the First Lady on her private trip which, he said, she has undertaken in that capacity.
He said: “I can confirm that the First Lady has travelled in her official capacity as First Lady of the Republic to the UK. The officials she has travelled with are the same officers she travels and works with in her office back here in Malawi.
“As a matter of fact, some of her aides have been left out of the trip because the trip was on strict budget and we had to spend within our means.
“You may wish to appreciate also that it is cost-effective to have our own professional Malawian officers accompany the First Lady to UK than hiring there. Normally she travel with 12 people in Malawi, but the number has been reduced to seven .”
Kalilani said the seven officials include a government nurse, her personal assistant and security officers.
The Presidents (Salaries and Benefits) Act entitles the First Lady to travel abroad on private trip and fully paid by government. But the law is silent on the entourage.
An official familiar with State House protocol confided that for a private trip, the First Lady was supposed to be accompanied by two security officers.
“One officer would be accompanying the First Lady wherever she will go while the second officer will be manning the hotel room. It all depends on the prudency of the First Lady. But the other members of the entourage were supposed to be funded from her personal money,” said the official.
The Presidents (Salaries and Benefits) Act provides that the spouse of the President was entitled to travel abroad at government expense if in the company of the President.
Further, the law states that the spouse is entitled to travel abroad privately at government expense, but restricted to three times a year for a duration not exceeding 14 days each.
In April 2019, monthly expenditure report indicated that State Residences was allocated about K7 billion which was exhausted at mid-year.
New Minister of Finance, Economic Planning and Development Joseph Mwanamvekha is yet to unveil the 2019/20 National Budget but delivered a provisional four-month spending plan of K511.3 billion covering July to October.
News of the First Lady’s controversial trip expenses comes barely a week after our sister newspaper, Weekend Nation, reported in its July 20 2019 edition that Beautify Malawi (Beam) Trust, a charity founded by the First Lady, was cashing in on a deal with Blantyre City Council. The newspaper reported that the charity had leased refuse collection trucks it received as a donation from China in a deal that appeared to have violated procurement rules.
Beam is registered as a non-profit organisation and describes itself on its website as “an indigenous NGO registered under the Trustees Incorporation Act” which believes that “a cleaner and healthier Malawi is possible”.