There have been fresh reports of the Cashgate type of fraud at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development where K47 million was allegedly siphoned out of public coffers through salary payments to ghost workers.
Confirming the development, Erica Maganga, principal secretary in the ministry, refused to divulge further details beyond saying that 70 officials had been interdicted and the matter was in the hands of the police.
State-owned Malawi Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) has seized the narrative and turned the matter into a propaganda coup. It has been conducting interviews with some commentators and ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officials stating that the development is testimony of the desire by authorities to deal with fraud within the government establishment.
Ironically, this was a similar stand adopted by then ruling People’s Party following revelations of Cashgate in 2013, but they were soundly vilified by, among others, opposition parties (DPP included) for celebrating and getting mileage from a calamity.
The two situations beg the question: Should Malawians rejoice every time there is an exposure of fraud within government?
Governance expert, Henry Chingaipe, described the reaction as a ‘double-edged sword’.
“While revelations of fraud in government ministries might be seen as a sign of progress in trying to root out the vice (especially when officially made by government), people have to treat it with a pinch of salt. It signifies the desire by authorities to be transparent while striving to stop the leakage of public resources,” he said.
Nevertheless, Chingaipe said the news was also a cause of concern coming from a background of Cashgate—the massive plunder of public resources by civil servants, politicians and their collaborators, who siphoned K24 billion from Capital Hill between April and September 2013, according to a forensic audit by British firm Baker Tilly.
“But this might be a tip of an iceberg. Fraud in government has always been so systematic it might have spread across a wide network. Otherwise, the announcement could turn to be a smokescreen to cover big fish implicated in the fraud,” added Chingaipe.
The sentiments were echoed by Mustafa Hussein, a lecturer in political science at Chancellor College, who asked authorities to go beyond the mere announcement to put decisive measures to safeguard government funds from being abused.
“Of course, we can rejoice that there seems to be some movement in trying to deal with the abuse of public funds but that should not be the end of the story. From what we have learnt in the past, our public financial management systems have been so porous requiring urgent attention,” he said.
Darwin Nhlane, a citizen based in Mangochi, pointed out that the revelations have to be treated with utmost caution as they may be a pointer to another wave of public fraud.
“There is nothing to celebrate because these announcements and subsequent comments are mere rhetoric without any benefit to an ordinary Malawian. The problem is that our government(s) do not learn. The way public money is stolen has not changed as it is orchestrated from the top and involves a few at the bottom. The top ones know where the money is,” he said.
Another citizen based in Lilongwe, Hebrews Misomali, exhorted fellow citizens to demand accountability from government if things are to change in the way public finances are managed.
“Whenever such things are reported, citizens should be reacting and demanding reforms in the way government administers public finances rather than being passive and expect that things will get better on their own. We do not want to see a repeat of what happened during Cashgate where such revelations triggered a string of more shady deals that were being hidden.
“Government must assure us that it is putting up effective mechanisms to protect our wealth and stop people from stealing other than being reactive. Otherwise, with the issue from the Ministry of Agriculture, Malawians have all the reasons to worry,” he said.
The Ministry of Finance, Economic Planning and Development has meanwhile instituted a payroll audit at the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development to verify the number of employees and the monthly wage bill.