Government’s commitment to fight institutionalised corruption is being questioned following its failure to swiftly recruit heads of two critical oversight institutions.
Although government has quickly filled some key vacant posts in some establishments, it has not shown the same enthusiasm to fill vacancies in other key accountability and governance establishments.
For instance, the position of the Auditor General (AG) has stayed unfilled for more than three years since Stephenson Kamphasa retired in June 2018 during the Peter Mutharika’s administration.
Equally, the Financial Intelligence Authority (FIA) has been without a director general for two years following a decision by the Mutharika administration not to extend the contract of Atuweni Juwayeyi Agbermodji.
The two offices play critical roles in ensuring accountability. The AG ensures all public agencies are audited and reports to Parliament on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which the agencies use public money.
On the other hand, FIA monitors, investigates and fights money laundering and tracks illicit transactions with the mandate to freeze suspicious accounts in the country’s commercial banks.
Ironically, attempts have been made in both cases to recruit heads of these institutions and others but the exercise appears to have fallen by the way side.
Since then the bodies are managed by caretakers.
This is in contrast to the speed with which government filled positions at the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), the office of the Ombudsman (OoO), the Office of Director of Public Officers Declarations (ODPOD) and Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC), among others.
Minister of Information spokesperson Gospel Kazako, who is also the government spokesperson, confessed in an interview that recruitment of the key people was indeed taking long.
He said: “We must accept this has indeed taken more time than anticipated. It will be an element of belittling the intellect of the public if we deny that these appointments have delayed. But we are working towards normalising all those institutions. Very soon those positions will be filled.”
But governance commentator Willy Kambwandira faulted government for its reactive approach to the issue, arguing that failure to timely recruit such people compromises the performance of oversight institutions.
Kambwandira, who is executive director of Centre for Social Accountability and Transparency, said the development raises questions on whether the administration takes the fight against corruption seriously.
“Our concern is those acting in the positions do not have power to execute certain key decisions; hence, this exposes these institutions to abuse, and cannot provide the desired oversight role.”
“We believe this could be a deliberate move by politicians to weaken oversight institutions so that they cannot be held accountable. It is part of rent seeking behaviour by those in power protecting each other from wrong doings.”
He demanded government to swiftly fill the positions “if we are to win war against money laundering, corruption and all other forms of organised crimes.”
Kambwandira described the status quo as a “very awkward situation” that needs to be quickly resolved.
“In all fairness, this situation does not speak well with the anti-corruption rhetoric,” he lamented.
On his part, human and civil rights activist Gift Trapence said it was disappointing that government including previous regimes deliberately delays in filling key positions in critical governance institutions.
“This is mostly done when the government is not committed on issues of accountability and such strategies are applied to cripple operations of such institutions. It is high time government realised how important these institutions are in our democracy,” said Trapence who is also chairperson of Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC).
The delay to fill the positions on a substantive basis has seen the National Audit Office headed by two different acting auditor generals—Thomas Makiwa and the incumbent Rexie Chiluzi.
According to the amended Public Audit Act of 2018, Section 5(b) (1), an acting AG is only mandated to be in that position for six months.
Makiwa was appointed acting AG twice but Mutharika later replaced him with Joseph Nangantani whose appointment was rejected by Parliament.
“As a nation we cannot operate for such a long time without heads of these crucial institutions. HRDC, therefore, calls upon the Tonse Alliance administration to speed up the process of recruiting directors in these essential institutions,” urged the chairperson.
After Kamphasa’s retirement, Mutharika appointed Harold Mwala but Parliament rejected his appointment. The Institute of Chartered Accountants in Malawi also rejected him on the grounds he did not possess significant auditing experience and a valid practising licence.
The law empowers the President to “appoint an Auditor General only from the names on the list recommended by the selection panel”.
Public Appointments Committee of Parliament chairperson Joyce Chitsulo told Weekend Nation in May this year that the AG’s office now lacks long-term strategic direction, and bold decision-making as the office-holders are temporary.
“A person in acting capacity is not sure of his or her future and such people shy away from making bold decisions, which is a recipe for poor management,” she said.
At FIA, President Lazarus Chakwera re-appointed Agbermodji in January 2021 but despite serving on the position for three years, Parliament rejected her appointment a month later.