First Lady Gertrude Mutharika has come under the spotlight in the British media which has faulted her for extravagance after she reportedly spent £80 000 (about K61 200 000) public funds on a personal trip to the United Kingdom.
The British media report comes after The Nation reported last week that Mutharika had taken seven aides with her on a trip where she attended her son Tadikira Mafubza’s graduation ceremony at the University of Greenwich.
Britain’s The Daily Mail online edition www.dailymail.co.uk quoted a source at the Malawi High Commission in London as having said the First Lady and her son “are out here squandering taxpayers’ money while ordinary citizens are unnecessarily dying in hospitals due to lack of medicines”.
The paper quoted the source: “This is really sad. This should not be allowed—such conduct is tantamount to crimes against humanity.”
The Daily Mail said Mutharika is staying at the five-star Dorchester Hotel where rooms typically cost from £700 to £900 a night with a price of up to £5 500 for suites.
Efforts to seek State House response on the First Lady’s negative press in the UK proved futile yesterday as presidential press secretary Mgeme Kalilani hu ng up the line immediately after the issue of perceived financial mismanagement was introduced.
But in an interview last week when The Nation broke the story, Kalilani said government paid all the expenses for the First Lady’s entourage. He said the entourage was trimmed from 12 to seven to cut costs.
He said: “You may wish to appreciate also that it is cost-effective to have our own professional Malawian officers accompany the First Lady to UK than hiring there. Normally, she travels with 12 people in Malawi, but the number has been reduced to seven.”
The President’s (Salaries and Benefits) Act entitles the First Lady to travel abroad on private trip and fully paid by government. But the law is silent on her entourage.
Sources confided that the First Lady is accompanied on her 10-day trip by seven State Residences officials, including security, who have taken K315 000 ($420) each per day for the 10 days. The allowances translate to K3.1 million per individual and K22 million for the seven for 10 days.
The sources said the allowances do not include the First Lady’s entitlement and accommodation for the entourage, meaning that the amount could be higher as an average air ticket from Malawi to London is pegged at K900 000 which adds up to K7.2 million for the whole team.
Vice-President Everton Chimulirenji’s spouse, Judith Chimulirenji, was also seen in pictures with the First Lady and her son at the graduation ceremony.
An official familiar with State House protocol said that for a private trip, the First Lady was supposed to be accompanied by two security officers.
“One officer would be accompanying the First Lady wherever she will go while the second officer will be manning the hotel room. It all depends on the prudency of the First Lady. But the other members of the entourage were supposed to be funded from her personal money,” said the official.
While Kalilani said in an earlier interview that it was expensive to hire security and other officials on the ground in UK, The Daily Mail reported that Mutharika also hired a UK-based security team to accompany her.
The paper also quoted Kalilani as having clarified later that the First Lady was not at The Dorchester Hotel and that her exact lodging place could not be disclosed on security grounds.
In May this year, former British International Development Secretary Rory Stewart used Malawi as an example to highlight the failure of the United Kingdom’s foreign policy, saying that Malawi was poorer that when Britain started offering financial support, despite spending over £4.5 billion over the past 50 years.
News of the First Lady’s controversial trip expenses comes barely a week after our sister newspaper, Weekend Nation, reported in its July 20 2019 edition that Beautify Malawi (Beam) Trust, a charity founded by the First Lady, was cashing in on a deal with Blantyre City Council. The newspaper reported that the charity had leased refuse collection trucks it received as a donation from China in a deal that appeared to have violated procurement rules. Beam is registered as a non-profit organisation and describes itself on its website as “an indigenous NGO registered under the Trustees Incorporation Act” which believes that “a cleaner and healthier Malawi is possible”.