While government officials have turned their backs to the public and constantly lists a litany of excuses for failure to deliver their mandate, the office of the Ombudsman, under the able Martha Chizuma is different.
Chizuma would arguably make many people’s list of personality of the year. It would be for a good reason. In 2019, she continued trailblazing with an approach to public office so alien to the country. She is defending the voiceless and seeking to cleanup government system she is part of.
The Ombudsman left no stone unturned and this year hogged constant headlines with fresh investigations and highly publicised fights to jail senior government officials who previously refused to comply with her orders.
That legal battle originates from Chizuma’s previous investigation into Tractorgate—a public finance management scandal in which government spent $50 million (about K37 billion) obtained from an Indian bank procuring tractors meant to serve poor farming communities, but which ended up being sold at below market prices to senior government officials, businesspersons and politicians.
That report was released in October 2016, but Chizuma has been fighting in court to get government first to apologise over the scandal, which she successfully achieved this year, and later, drag to court officials reluctant to comply with aspects of her report to court.
This year, the court found the Secretary to the Treasury and Principal Secretary for Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development guilty of contempt of court over the matter. She is fighting for the officials to serve some jail time.
But Chizuma, who has the backing of Parliament and crucially, majority of Malawians who appear to support her initiative, is unfazed.
She has been compared to Thuli Madonsela, the South African former Ombudsman who was at the centre of the State Capture investigation—looking at the corrupt relationship between former president Jacob Zuma and a family of Indian born businesspersons, the Guptas.
This year, Chizuma also surprised many by opening a preliminary investigation into an allegation that former Speaker of Parliament, Henry Chimunthu Banda, allegedly acquired illegally a house, constructed by the Chinese Government, which was supposed to be the official residence for sitting speakers of Parliament. The former speaker laughed off the allegations in media interviews and challenged those smearing his name to come up with the evidence.
Chizuma, 40, has remained quiet on what transpired through the initial inquiries and goes into 2020 with that investigation still in her in-tray.
And it’s not only at the top echelons of power that Chizuma is going after in terms of her cleansing agenda. Following several reports of abuses in the local government system, with millions of taxpayers’ money squandered through mismanagement and outright embezzlement, Chizuma announced that she will be investigating how all the district councils in the country have been spending taxpayers’ money in the past five years.
In March, she conducted an investigation on how street children in the country have been abandoned by the State and ordered the State to remove all children from the streets by March next year.
Another investigation, titled Woes of the Womb, looking at how women were losing uteruses at alarming rate at major hospitals followed in August. That report originated from media reporting of the subject and this was a sharp contrast to positions of many public officials who often wait for official complaints before taking any action.
She is now investigating government on irregularities and discrimination in recent promotions of teachers.
On the local government investigation, the public protector’s office said she will follow up on how taxpayers’ money has been used through Local Development Fund, Constituency Development Fund and District Development Fund.
“We received complaints from two members of Parliament relating to development of funds in their respective constituencies.
“The Ombudsman then reviewed National Audit Office reports on accounts for city and district councils for the period 2013/14 to 2017/18 where again most of these issues were also picked out,” said Chizuma in an interview in October.
Oxfam Malawi welcomed the development as “a positive step forward”.