The National Audit Office (NAO) was recognised as the best performer in the public service in the 2018/19 after it, among others, managed to audit 35 local councils, 43 out of 50 votes in the 2018/19 financial budget and 17 treasury-funded institutions.
The 2018/19 Auditor General’s report for ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) epitomised the progress that had been made at the office in that year. Malawians had reason to hope that the public sector reforms were finally starting to show some discernible results.
Granted, only four of the 19 embassies were audited, but the signs were there that the NAO was finally stepping up to provide the much-need oversight and curb gross financial mismanagement in MDAs.
It, therefore, came as a surprise when Malawians learned on Tuesday that Government had slashed the NAO’s funding in this fiscal year, granting the office K280 million less than it did in the previous financial year.
Acting Auditor General Thomas Makiwa reportedly told Parliament on Tuesday that he was concerned that the reduction in funding would affect the coverage, depth and complexity of the audits that the institution planned to conduct in this financial year.
Makiwa has good reason to be apprehensive. Malawi, with its long and unenviable history of institutionalised corruption and gross financial mismanagement, needs a robust and well-funded national audit authority to contain the malaise.
That the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has severely hit government revenues is there for all to see. Covid-19 and the measures put in place to contain it have disrupted economic activity, particularly in the education, agricultural, tourism and leisure sectors.
Not only that, but the pandemic has also placed a huge strain on our public service system, particularly in the health sector. Billions of public funds have been redirected to hire new medical staff and procure equipment to prepare the national health system for the pandemic.
All of that has put Government in an awkward position where it has to spend more when its capacity to generate revenue has been undermined. Surely, the folks at Capitol Hill deserve a little sympathy for implementing funding cuts in other sectors.
Nonetheless, I strongly feel that the NAO and the good ladies and gentlemen who are working tirelessly at the institution to stamp out financial mismanagement at the institution should have been spared from unnecessary budget cuts.
In fact, they should have been given more to build from their excellent work in the past year. Malawi needs strong oversight institutions to ensure that public funds are allocated to the right areas and are used for their intended purpose.
When the Office of the Director of Public Procurement, one of the first line oversight institutions in public financial management, fails to flag misallocation and inflated prices in MDA procurement protocols, the NAO is the last line of defence against financial abuse.
NAO should, therefore, be empowered to ensure that it can adequately capture and document all misallocated and misappropriated funds in MDAs. That is the best way to ensure that public funds are used for their intended purposes.
If Government ever needed a reason to prove that it needs a powerful and well-funded national audit authority, it needs to look no further than the video of two of its own ministers conspiring and conniving to divert Covid-19 funds to their pockets.
That video, which has since gone viral and was, until recently, trending on social media, should serve as proof that some of the topmost authorities in this government cannot be trusted to properly manage the resources under their care.
To date, there has been no investigation to gauge the extent of the duo’s mischievous scheme. Coincidentally, there has been no update on how Government is using the resources it got to help it manage and contain the pandemic.
I can take all day recounting cases where public funds have been misappropriated by the very same people charged with managing them, but the point is; we need the NAO to check against this type of financial mismanagement.
And the NAO needs to be properly funded to ensure that it can carry out its mandate to conduct comprehensive and thorough audits on MDAs, particularly now when government finances are strained by the pandemic.
Every penny counts and Malawians cannot afford losing public funds to unprincipled individuals. Give the NAO the power to protect public funds. n