As Malawi’s fiscal crisis paralyses the civil service and devastates social sectors such as health, President Joyce Banda flew out on Thursday with $92 000 (K34 million) to attend a day-long summit.
The President went to Equatorial Guinea to attend the Africa-South America Summit, a trip that presidential press secretary Steven Nhlane said would be partly funded by the host country.
But while in an interview Nhlane claims the host government sponsored air, ground transport and accommodation for the presidential entourage; correspondence seen by Weekend Nation indicates that State House drew funds for allowances, accommodation and ground transport from public coffers.
Weekend Nation has established that State House wrote National Bank of Malawi’s Capital City Service Centre requesting “for forex worth $92 240 “for Her Excellency’s external trip.”
Given that this figure caters for the presidency alone, the total cost to the taxpayer must be higher if her entourage of other officials, especially from foreign affairs, science and technology, health, human development, agriculture, trade and investment sectors who accompanied her are factored in. These officials get their funding from their ministries or departments.
The forex request letter we have seen, dated February 16 2013 reference number 2/1/47B/3, was signed by three senior State House officials—chief of staff Ben Mbewe, his deputy Charles Thupi and senior accountant, a Mr. H.O Mulwafu.
“Her Excellency Dr. Joyce Banda will next week undertake an external trip. In this respect, we are requesting forex worth $92 240 [ninety two thousand two hundred and forty United Stats dollars] to cater for allowances, accommodation and ground transport…,” reads the letter in part.
The money, according to the letter, was to be collected by a Mr. C.E. Kulinji, senior accounts assistant for State Residences.
The letter instructed National Bank to charge the amount on State Residences’ other recurrent transactions (ORT) account number 0141335014600.
On February 18, the bank’s Capital City operations manager Margret Kamlongera wrote Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM), requesting withdrawal of $100 000 (around K36 million) to finance Banda’s travel.
“We have been requested by State House that they will require cash for the presidential trips to cater for external travel allowances. In this regard, we request for a withdrawal of $100 000 from yourselves,” Kamlongera wrote to RBM director of banking and currency management in a letter referenced Exchange Control/cp/dsn.
This expenditure, in the middle of a financial and economic crisis, on a trip that could have been delegated to a relevant Cabinet minister, has irked economic governance watchdog, Malawi Economic Justice Network (Mejn). Mejn executive director Dalitso Kubalasa said on Thursday the President’s decision to travel at this point runs counter to government’s proclamations of 2013 as “year of breakthrough.”
“I really hope we have done our homework properly. If we say this is a year of breakthrough; that should be met with reality on the ground. We should do things in proper context so that people see what we really mean,” said Kubalasa from Lusaka where he was stranded for two days owing to Malawi Government workers’ strike.
The strike paralysed air traffic services apart from other key sectors such as health and education. Civil servants went on strike last week demanding a 67 percent pay hike due to the increased cost of living that has resulted from devaluation and inflation.
It also sharply contradicts the administration’s austerity drive that critics say is imposed on lower level civil servants and poor taxpayers but not on the VVIP category, including the presidency.
On Tuesday, Finance Minister Dr. Ken Lipenga said government cannot afford hiking public servants’ perks as was being demanded by unions.
But by Thursday afternoon, government and the Civil Service Trade Union had agreed on a 61 percent pay hike, ending a strike that was destined for its third week.
Weekend Nation could not immediately ascertain how much exactly the President currently gets in daily allowances.
However, during the late Bingu wa Mutharika days, the President was entitled to $5 000 (K1.8 million at present exchange rates) a day when travelling within Africa excluding North Africa.
By then, Mutharika was getting $10 000 (K3.6 million at present exchange rates) a day when going to North Africa and the rest of the world.
In the Wednesday statement announcing the trip, the presidential press secretary touted the summit as beneficial to Malawi.
“This is an important cooperation because most countries in South America face similar challenges as Malawi and other African countries. But South America has overcome these challenges and so Africa can learn from South American countries’ experience.
“Malawi, as a developing country facing major challenges to uplift the lives of its people, will benefit from the cooperation with South American countries through the participation of Her Excellency Dr Joyce Banda at the Summit,” said Nhlane.
The President is expected to return this Saturday.