- Accused of meddling at Escom
- Says he is just helping busy CEO
Minister of Energy Newton Kambala has come under fire for allegedly interfering in the operations of Escom through direct calls to some officers to assist some customers with connections to the national grid and faults.
In an interview yesterday, the minister justified his actions, saying he made the calls following complaints from some Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) customers and that he was only easing the workload of a busy acting chief executive officer (CEO). He added that most of the officers he called were his former colleagues in university.
But a former Energy minister and a former Escom CEO have faulted the minister’s conduct, describing it as abnormal.
Some Escom officers-in-charge of districts confided that Kambala has been personally issuing instructions, including who they should connect power to regardless of a waiting list which operates on first-come-first-served basis.
The officers also said the minister also calls them to fast-track attendance to faults.
Said one officer: “I have been called by a minister on a number of occasions asking me why I had not connected some customers who complained to him. When I explained why such connections had delayed, the minister felt like I was undermining his authority.
“I once advised the minister to engage my supervisor, but he could not take it easily.”
Another officer said he found it strange for the minister to call him on operational issues, saying: “We have a clear reporting line and my regional manager knows why we take time to make connections or fix faults. When I explained this to the minister, he accused me of incompetence.”
In an interview, Kambala admitted that he called individual officers, but said his action did not interfere in Escom affairs.
He said his direct telephone calls to the officers were meant to ease the workload for Escom acting CEO whom he said was preoccupied with the turnaround strategy of the financially struggling power utility.
Kambala said: “The CEO is so busy trying to do some turnaround issues. I have spoken to him directly, but I also feel I need to help him.
“I have friends at Escom and I talk to them directly. For your own information, I worked for Escom for five years. Most of the people at Escom we were together at the university so I take advantage to tell them how customers are thinking about Escom.”
He said he receives many complaints from customers, including allegations of corruption; hence, his interest to engage the officers directly.
The minister also shared screenshots of some WhatsApp messages from customers alleging cases of corruption involving some of the district officers.
Reads one of the messages: “Why should we pay K130 000 just to get a quotation? My son was at Escom yesterday and that’s what he was told. Malawi! Where is this country going and why are we milking each other like that as poor as we are?”
On whether he had taken an interest to look into allegations of corruption based on the reports, Kambala said sometimes it is not really that the officers are corrupt, but rather a matter of public perception. However, he admitted that there could be some pockets of rotten apples.
In a written response, Escom public relations manager Innocent Chitosi said they are not aware of the alleged complaints from the said district officers.
On whether it was within the mandate of the line minister to call officers on operational issues, he said as a State-owned enterprise, Escom draws its mandate from the government policy.
Chitosi said: “The board of directors provides oversight on whether or not we are delivering on our mandate. Since we are a State-owned enterprise, our mandate is drawn from the government policy in the area of electricity, whose policy holder is the Ministry of Energy.
“You are free to contact the policy holder to understand how the policy interacts with the activities which Escom is responsible for.”
But in a separate interview, former minister of Energy Grain Malunga said under normal circumstances, the minister is not supposed to directly call the officers in question.
He said: “If I were in his position, I would call the chairperson of the board or the CEO because it scares those [junior] officers and that is why I would talk to the board chair or CEO.”
Malunga said people tend to directly approach Cabinet ministers out of desperation, but said it is up to the minister to follow the chain of command.
On his part, former Escom CEO Kandi Padambo said while it is not wrong for a minister to receive such complaints, the minister is supposed to channel the same to either the board chairperson and the CEO or directors.
He said people are at liberty to engage the minister on matters of electricity connection, but said it would help if such complaints were forwarded to the board chairperson or CEO to ensure that the minister is not seen to influence decisions of officers on the ground.
Padambo said: “Look at the power balance between the minister and the poor district officer or manager for Escom and where the minister asks about specific applicants seeking connection, the district in-charge may be intimidated to consider that applicant first regardless of when the application was made.
Escom is saddled with a backlog of applications for power connection with some dating back to 2017.