The United States of America (USA) continues to pile pressure on government to prosecute Ministry of Health officials who are implicated in the abuse of travel allowances in an HIV and Aids programme it funded.
Initially, the abused funds from the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) were pegged at K2.5 billion while the number of implicated officials, among them directors of finance, human resources and HIV in the ministry, was at 63, according to an audit conducted by National Audit Office (NAO).
However, a second audit conducted by a private firm Graham Carr reduced the funds to K875.7 million and the number of implicated officers to 38.
Last Thursday, a story monitored on Capital FM Radio indicated that the implicated officers have merely been transferred to other departments while some have been forced to go on early retirement to protect their terminal benefits.
Meanwhile, our sources in the Ministry of Health (MoH) have confirmed government’s move to transfer and retire some of the accused officers instead of disciplining them.
Reacting to the development, the US said merely transferring an employee guilty of wrongdoing does not seem to be disciplinary action significant enough to deter other potential wrongdoing.
In an e-mailed response to a questionnaire, US Embassy public affairs officer Edward Monster on Monday said where appropriate, employees found to be guilty of any wrongdoing should be turned over to law enforcement authorities for prosecution as failure to follow the requirement of the law sets a very bad precedent.
“Employees found to be guilty of malfeasance [wrong doing involving public officers] should be subjected to appropriate disciplinary action, including termination of employment and prosecution by law enforcement authorities, where appropriate.
We continue to call upon the government of Malawi to take prompt, stern disciplinary action against the employees involved,” he said.
Monster also called upon all other government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) to identify other instances where payroll irregularities, allowance cheating and theft are occurring and take action to hold those responsible to account.
He said such accountability is essential to make public service reform real and Malawi strong and prosperous.
Efforts to get government’s reaction to the US’s calls proved futile as Minister of Health Peter Kumpalume, when contacted on Tuesday, pushed the matter to Lloyd Muhara, Chief Secretary in the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC).
When called on Tuesday, Muhara responded through a text message, promising to call later, but he never did. When contacted again on Wednesday his phone went unanswered. Yesterday, after calling him and getting no response, the reporter sent him a text message briefing him about the aim of calling. He responded by saying, “I will ask someone to write a brief for you.
I guess you want to know action taken”, but The Nation had not received the brief as we went to press. However, in an earlier interview on the issue, Kumpalume said as a politician, he would have loved to see all the implicated fired, but he respected the rules of natural justice.
“As a politician yes, these people need to go, but we must follow procedures and hear their side of the story,” he said.
Meanwhile, health rights activist Maziko Matemba has expressed shock at the stand taken by the ministry, saying the laws of the country are clear on how these matters are supposed to be handled.
He said Malawi should always avoid sending wrong messages. “I know the concerned health workers have a right to be heard, but this should not be a disadvantage to Malawians who do follow these issues with keen interest as it affects their health rights as they try to access care.
“The Ministry of Health should revisit its earlier stand which was strong and was appreciated by all Malawians in curbing misuse of health resources whose main beneficiaries are 17 million Malawians and not a few.
“On another note, the Ministry of Health should let the courts to do their part in determining the case in point than letting administrative issues to delay it,” said Matemba who is Health Rights Education Programme (Hrep) executive director.
In December 2015, the 63 officers were suspended after CDC, an agency of the Government of the United States of America, raised the red flag that some MoH officers collected allowances without undertaking field trips for an HIV and Aids programme.
The US government is a major financier to the health sector through the Global Fund, Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and programmes such as the US President’s Malaria Initiative and the US President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief (Pepfar), among others.