That the Office of the Veep is, or was depending on who you believe, planning to spend K216 million on a trip to the US has stoked fears that this cohort of politicians is not committed to the reforms that they are imposing on their subjects.
On Sunday, news broke that Vice-President Saulos Chilima would blow an estimated K216 million to fly a 41-member delegation to the United Nations (UN) Economic and Social Council Forum for Financing Development in New York, US.
Some sections of the public were not amused. The oversized and bloated delegations have been a major drain on public funds.
In the court of public opinion, it was sheer hypocrisy for the office of the Veep, the champion and face of the public sector reforms, to be involved in this kind of perceived extravagance when the Tonse Alliance administration has been preaching austerity.
The revelation and resultant public outrage sparked a clean-up campaign that ultimately left more questions than answers. The Office of the Vice-President moved to discredit the leaked document, but did not provide any supporting information that would have put this issue to rest.
First, the office of the Veep said Chilima would take 15 people from his office. No one from that office explicitly denied that the initial report that showed 41 people would travel on this K216 million sojourn was inaccurate.
The contradicting positions coming from the office of the Veep and the other government agencies suggests that there were 41 people leaving for the US, 15 from the Veep’s office and 26 from God knows where.
To any rational thinking person, this would raise more disturbing questions; where did the 26 the Veep’s PR team disowned in its follow up statement come from? Should Malawians believe that Chilima and his team were not in control of this delegation? If they were not, then who was pulling the strings?
Second, the Veep’s office did not provide any justification for the Veep’s 15-member delegation. That is assuming Malawians bought the spin and believe the other 26 people will not travel. The public would have been sympathetic to the use of taxpayer’s funds if there was any evidence that it was justified.
When the story broke, some analysts urged the public to be patient and temper their frustrations because such an important trip might have necessitated the big entourage. The Veep’s office wasted that sentiment.
After a three-day blackout, the Veep’s PR team did not justify the 15-member delegation from their office. Malawians have been patient with the Tonse Alliance and there is good reason to believe that if the statement focused on the importance of these individuals, this particular issue would have been laid to rest.
The information gaps left by the Veep’s office will only fuel speculation that several unprincipled government officials and politically connected individuals used an important business meeting to go shopping overseas on taxpayer’s bill.
It is counter-intuitive to let that kind of disruptive speculation to thrive, especially when Malawians are reeling from the rising cost of living and taxes continue eroding their buying power. It does not inspire confidence.
The Vice-President is widely believed to be the champion of the public sector reforms. He received many plaudits for leading the reforms drive when he led the first round of reforms under the leadership of former president Peter Mutharika.
In fact, some sections of the public believed that those rounds of reforms failed because the former regime removed him at the helm. It is disappointing that this perceived extravagance is happening right in his office.
Chilima is widely believed to be one of the few leaders that can rebuild Malawi and drive the country’s reform agenda. He risks losing that trust if he or the people around him behave in the same callous way the former DPP-led administration did.
Malawi is going through tough economic times and some equally tough decisions on austerity will have to be made. Spending all those millions on a trip no one seems willing, let alone capable of justifying, is a major let down for Malawians.
The public trips abroad will always attract attention. This particular trip should have been handled with tact and sensitivity taking into consideration the people involved.