On Wednesday, I took it as an early April fool’s day prank when I read that 75 people in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development had been suspended for giving each other unsanctioned allowances and double or triple salaries running in millions. The story seemed eerily familiar.
As reported by the Weekend Nation in June last year, between February and April 2015, the Auditor General commissioned a consultant to assess government’s Human Resource Management Information System (HRMIS). The results were staggering, but hardly surprising. Coming in the wake of the mother of all financial iscandals that was Cashgate, the revelations showed a devil-may-care attitude guided the management of public resources and an inability to learn from past mistakes.
Between January 2014 and February 2015, the assessment noted, some public workers in various ministries, departments and agencies had fiddled with the system and managed to fleece taxpayers of K6 billion through the manipulation of payrolls, doubling of salaries, introduction of ghost workers and introduction of unauthorised codes in HRMIS, among a litany of underhand tactics they used.
The Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development was fingered as one of the major culprits, which had requested from Treasury K9.1 billion against a payroll of K8.9 billion—which means that K200 million grew wings along the away. Such impunity was dealt with in the only way our public system knows best: some people from the ministry were suspended, arrested, taken to court, given bail and that seems to be it.
I am no auditor, forgive if my understanding of auditing seems rudimentary, if not outlandish. But I would suppose one of its functions is to signpost to problems in a system and to suggest mechanisms to deal with the loopholes. In the Malawi public service, however, one gets the nagging suspicion that audits are carried out as a matter of course just to satisfy the law and, sometimes, to ensnare a few political undesirables within the public service.
No matter illustrates the former point than the latest revelations from the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development. The 75 people who have been interdicted in the ministry did not have to outthink the system or be surreptitious or sophisticated. They simply gave each other double salaries—just as the previous team of thieves had done.
Something emboldened the 75 considering the cavalier way in which they executed their plan. Either the loopholes that were identified the last time remained gapping or, the benefits of stealing from the public purse outweighed the punishment, if any.
Whatever the case, we seem to be doing a splendid job in reforming our public finance management systems by moving in circles. I can bet that we haven’t seen the last of malfeasance in the Ministry of Agriculture. Who knows, Cashgate may not be dead and buried after all! As we speak, there could be another Oswald Lutepo, another Leonard Kalonga, another Theresa Senzani plundering their way through billions of public finances. Do we need another shooter, another Paul Mphwiyo to jerk the nation into action? n