Three non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have hailed President Lazarus Chakwera for acting swiftly on the K6.2 billion Covid-19 audit report which has exposed rampant abuse of funds.
However, the NGOs say they want more arrests of implicated individuals, quick completion of such cases and restitution of the money.
The three organisations, Oxfam in Malawi, Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) and Church and Society Programme of the CCAP Synod of Livingstonia, were reacting to Chakwera’s speech delivered on Sunday evening and his subsequent actions on the findings.
Apart from firing Labour Minister Ken Kandodo, who used Covid-19 money for a trip to South Africa, Chakwera also vowed to recover the stolen funds, interdict implicated public officers and ban any businesses suspected to have played a role in the plunder from any future government contracts.
In an interview, HRDC chairperson Gift Trapence, whose institution last week gave Chakwera seven days to act on the report, expressed satisfaction with the steps taken so far, but said they are waiting for more arrests of controlling officers.
He said the magnitude of the theft exposed in the report shows that senior public officers, including those in the Office of President and Cabinet (OPC), knew about the abuse and must, therefore, be brought to book.
Said Trapence: “We commend the President for a very robust speech and decisions taken so far. This is what Malawians have been waiting for, decisive leadership.
“For us, we are still monitoring because it’s still within the seven days of our ultimatum. We would want to see more arrests, a comprehensive list of those being arrested.
“We don’t just want arrests of junior officers because Malawians are aware that the definition of controlling officers involves senior officers and they want them arrested too, including at OPC. There must be someone who was controlling the junior officers, so they should not be shielded. But so far so good. ”
Church and Society Programme executive director Moses Mkandawire, speaking at a press briefing on Monday in Mzuzu said the arrests can only be meaningful if the ultimate goal is achieved.
He urged government to ensure that all law enforcement agencies and the courts are capacitated so that the cases are expedited, saying Malawians will not judge government based on the number of arrests, but by the number of cases concluded.
Said Mkandawire: “All those assigned to perform their duties must do so within a reasonable timeframe. We have so many vacancies, and it’s time for government to fill them up. We need action, and it will be meaningless to simply arrest people yet their cases drag for too long because we don’t have capacity to handle them.
“Let the Chief Justice create a specialised court on financial crimes to handle this, and if we don’t have many judges, let more judges be appointed. We don’t want a case to drag for years. As we do all this, let us also make sure that all the money stolen or abused is paid back; we need that money back!”
On her part, Oxfam Malawi country director Lingalireni Mihowa said there is a sense of urgency to cleanse Malawi of the pervasive culture of theft, bribery, corruption and impunity that continues to bleed Malawi of its much-needed resources.
In a statement, she hailed Chakwera for taking action in response to the Auditor General’s report, saying he demonstrated that he was serious about tackling theft, bribery and corruption in the public sector.
Mihowa expressed hope that authorities tasked to implement the President’s directives will do so expeditiously.
She said: “It is appalling and disheartening that the report makes chilling revelations that at a time when Malawi was grappling to contain the spread of the Covid-19, when many lives were being lost due to shortage of essential equipment and supplies in the health facilities, there were people that were feasting on resources meant for the response to the pandemic.
“Thorough and swift prosecution of culprits is needed, recovery of lost resources to the greatest extent possible would perhaps halt this malpractice, deter would-be offenders and free this nation from the trappings of abuse of public resources and development aid this country mobilises.”
On Sunday evening, Chakwera fired Kandodo for using Covid-19 money for a foreign trip, although it was later reimbursed, and ordered the arrest of all those involved in the misuse of the funds.
The findings of the investigative audit into the abuse of K6.2 billion Covid-19 response funds exposed loopholes in public finance management that drained K720 million through procurement flaws, inflated payments, irregular allowances, dubious claims and poor planning.