Following the triumph of the presidential ticket pair of President Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera and Vice-President Saulos Klaus Chilima in the court-ordered fresh presidential election held on June 23, the social and mainstream media have reported alleged abuse of public resources by the previous administration.
I must say that such revelations of abuse of office and public funds in a predecessor administration are not new. That has always been the norm every time there is a change of guard.
For a long time, public resources have been abused in Malawi both by the governing political elite and their associates and some civil servants.
For the record, fraud and corruption are estimated to drain about 30 percent of the resources Parliament allocates in the annual national budget.
It is not for lack of enabling laws that the public resources are abused at such an alarming rate. It is simply a culture of impunity and the plunder mentality by the governing elite. The “it’s our time to eat” mentality.
The National Audit Office (NAO) is mandated to undertake audits of government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs). Year in and year out, NAO publishes audits which highlight shortfalls and recommends measures to seal some of the loopholes. Sadly, though, lack of concrete action to implement recommendations of the auditors is the order of the day.
Internal audit is critical to ensuring adherence to internal controls and governance issues in both the public and private sectors. But in Malawi, government has systematically weakened NAO through reduced funding to the point that at times the institution has had to rely on donors to fund its operations, not a practical path to take if fraud and abuse are to be combated.
Internal auditors or auditing devise controls in organisations and ensure that systems are working whereas external auditors or auditing, on the other hand, test the systems set by internal auditors. In external auditing, there is also physical check of receipts, invoices, petty cash, payments and compliance with international financial reporting standards.
Generally, audits examine adherence to set systems and standards in terms of procurement, supply and payments.
In recent years, audit reports have exposed pure theft and abuse of public resources. While at it, it is also worth appreciating that auditing is different from a commission of inquiry.
To the new administration, it would help the cause to fight fraud and corruption and restore confidence in the country’s public finance management if timelines were set for every step of an investigation into a case. In that way, the public and stakeholders would be able to see where the problem lies when a case stalls. That way, mantras such as “we are still investigating” will be eliminated. Progress will be visible.
The Financial Services Act provides for internal auditors, external auditors and examiners.
Malawi has qualified personnel in forensic auditing who are rarely used by the State apparently because the State does not know how or what to use them for!!
If Malawi is to win the fight against fraud and corruption, it is important that authorities abstain from fighting fraud and corruption through podium rhetoric. The new team should use the available laws and empower oversight and governance institutions, including the NAO, the Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Financial Intelligence Authority, Fiscal Police and even the Directorate of Public Prosecutions.
The Public Finance Management Act provides that controlling officers under whose watch public funds are mismanaged should be disciplined.
But since its enactment in 2003, we only read reports about over-expenditure or abuse of office, but none about controlling officers being disciplined.
While the authorities bear the burden to protect the public purse as suggested above, my appeal to internal auditors is for them to rise to the occasion and take up their rightful spaces. Investigations and prosecution of cases will not end losses. Effective and efficient auditing will.