The Public Appointments Committee (PAC) of Parliament yesterday rejected Martha Chizuma as Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) director general.
The rejection has drawn sharp criticism from government spokesperson Gospel Kazako and a political observer, both of whom say politics trumped objectivity in the decision.
Chizuma, acclaimed for transforming the Office of the Ombudsman into one of the staunch public protectors, was rejected as the country’s first ever female ACB head after she emerged top among candidates during preliminary interviews last month and was later approved for the top ACB job by President Lazarus Chakwera pending confirmation by PAC.
In an interview yesterday, PAC chairperson Joyce Chitsulo said Chizuma scored 14.5 out of 25 points instead of the 17 points minimum required for the job.
The incumbent Ombudsman’s parliamentary rebuff has shocked many Malawians who thought her stellar performance as Ombudsman made her the right fit for the ACB position.
While Chitsulo said she personally believes that Chizuma is the right candidate for the job having performed remarkably as Ombudsman, she said her hands were tied as she could not influence the committee’s decision.
She said: “I personally respect Chizuma and I hold her in high esteem. She has done really well as Ombudsman. By the way it is because of her performance that the same committee appointed her Ombudsman and further renewed her contract.”
Just a day before her PAC interview, the Ombudsman was the talk of the town after releasing a Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) investigative report titled Secure Deception, which nullified the appointment of 16 people hired into positions without following procedures, according to the report findings.
This was one of many such reports exposing and rectifying various forms of abuse of public office that the Office of the Ombudsman has released under Chizuma’s leadership.
Meanwhile, commentators have described the outcome of the interview as shocking, with some suggesting that Chizuma may be a victim of political brinkmanship.
In an interview, Lilongwe South member of Parliament (MP) Peter Dimba, a member of the committee who was part of the interviewing panel, said when they demanded an audit of the score sheets after the interview, it was discovered that nine members out of 18 scored Chizuma poorly (one out of 25) while the others scored her highly (22 and 23 out of 25).
He said: “This means that the average score came down to 14.9 out of 25 and that is below the requirement. We were all shocked
because she performed very well and she has an impressive CV. She responded to the questions very well and she demonstrated that she is somebody we need as a country to fight corruption.”
Dimba, who was speaking on behalf of what he called government (Tonse Alliance) members of the committee, said they suspected foul play and that they question the integrity of the committee chairperson.
“After it was learnt that nine members rated the candidate highly and nine others gave her a low score, it meant there was a tie that should have been resolved “but the chair bulldozed the process, she did not want to listen to us and toed the line of colleagues in the opposition”.
Among others, Chizuma was quizzed on her qualifications for the job, how she would handle the political pressure that comes with the office, how she would champion the bureau’s independence and her vision for the bureau and how she would handle the long-standing prosecution of former president Bakili Muluzi over abuse of office charges.
But according to sources in the committee, some members of the interviewing panel ranked Chizuma’s responses poorly even on the question of her qualifications. She holds a master’s degree in law from the University of East London in the United Kingdom.
Responding to the claims, Chitsulo said the decision was collectively made by the committee.
She said: “I, too, wanted Chizuma [to succeed], but I was bound by the decision of the committee. It is uncalled for that some MPs should be addressing the media when they could have resolved the matter within the House since standing orders allow members to move a motion that may allow for another interview with the candidate.”
PAC has 21 members, but Symon Vuwa Kaunda is out of the committee after the High Court nullified elections for his Nkhata Bay Central Constituency, while two other members Gertrude Nankhumwa and Yeremiah Chihana did not attend, bringing the number of panellists to 18.
Of those who attended, five, including Chitsulo, are members of the immediate-past governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), five are members of Malawi Congress Party, four are independents, with one each belonging to United Democratic Front and UTM Party.
However, two of the independents, Patrick Bandawe and Tony Ngalande, are part of the Tonse Alliance.
When contacted yesterday, Minister of Information Gospel Kazako, who is government spokesperson, decried the development as an attack on the fight against corruption.
He said: “This is a confirmation that we are enemies of our own nation. We work so hard to create mechanisms to destroy this country. Corruption is the biggest problem in this country and as government, we believed appointing a capable director of ACB was part of the apparatus.”
In a separate interview, political commentator Humphreys Mvula concurred with the minister, saying PAC has acted contrary to public expectation, describing Chizuma as “the people’s person”.
He observed that Chizuma’s failure to be confirmed had nothing to do with her competence, but politics, adding that this was a case of corruption fighting back.
Said Mvula: “The President did a commendable job to push for her, but those rejecting her have skeletons in their cupboards. It is obvious that some DPP members may not be comfortable with such an appointment given their corrupt background, so too some members of Tonse Alliance who have issues may not like her as well.”
He called on the public to take PAC to task to justify its “unpopular and unexpected” decision.
Two senior government lawyers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said since the law is not clear in terms of what happens after rejection of a President’s nominee, there are three possible options on the matter.
“The President can resubmit the name for consideration again, he can pick another one from the list of three that was submitted to him or request the Minister of Justice to re-advertise the position and pick fresh names.