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24 November 2017 05:24 (South Africa)
Africa

amaBhungane: Malawian Consumer protection authority pays for officials’ high life

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Photo: A woman rides on the back of a bicycle in Salima more than 200 km out of Blantyre, Malawi 15 May 2017. EPA/AARON UFUMELI

The Malawi Communication Regulations Authority, whose job is to regulate telecommunications, broadcasting and postal services to protect consumers, has been fingered by the Investigative Journalism Centre Malawi (CIJM) in connection with graft involving millions of kwacha. By CATHERINE CHIMZIMU for CIJM.

The Malawi Communication Regulations Authority (Macra) has emerged as the Malawian ministry of information’s illegal benefactor: in 2015/16 it shelled out more than 66-million kwacha for accommodation and meals, hired cars and other costs incurred by ministers and officials, the Investigative Journalism Centre Malawi (CIJM) has established.

This is despite the fact that the Communications Act enshrines the independence of the authority, whose job is to regulate telecommunications, broadcasting and postal services to protect consumers.

In addition, the Public Finance Management Act directs Macra to deposit any excess revenue with the Reserve Bank of Malawi.

Macra payment vouchers seen by the CIJM make it clear that the authority transferred about 66-million kwacha (R1.2-million) in 136 payments to the ministry between July 2015 and April 2016

One beneficiary of its generosity was former information minister Kondwani Nankhumwa. The vouchers show that the Macra splurged MK6.5-million (R118,000) on his accommodation and meals.

The current minister, Jappie Mhango, also had his accommodation and meals paid for to the tune of MK4.8-million (R87,000).

Macra continued paying Nankhumwa’s accommodation and meals up to December 2015 – despite the fact that he was moved to the local government portfolio in August 2015 in a cabinet reshuffle by President Peter Mutharika.

Sources said the Macra board unanimously approved a K50-million annual fund for use by the minister and his officials.

The ministry has a separate budget allocation, which in 2015/6 totalled MK 1.4-billion.

“Usually this fund is exhausted before the year ends. Macra then dips into its other revenue to sustain it. In most cases the money is withdrawn for dubious purposes,” the source said.

The vouchers seen by the CIJM show that as well as covering meals and accommodation, there were payments to the ministry of information for vehicle hire, the purchase of tyres and vehicle repairs.

Nankhumwa, also a high-ranking national executive committee member of the ruling Democratic Progressive Party, said he saw nothing wrong with accepting payments from Macra, describing them as a “good cause”. He claimed Macra had engaged him as a technical consultant, helping on issues such as “e-transaction and access to information”.

Asked for further details of the consulting work, he said this was a private matter and “none of your business”.

“Remember – we are government,” he said.

Transport minister Mhango rang off after refusing to answer questions about the payments, saying the media was waging a vendetta against the DPP. He did not answer subsequent calls.

Macra failed to respond to the CIJM’s questions about the transactions over a three-week period.

Former Treasury spokesperson Nations Msowoya spelt out Macra’s statutory responsibilities in regard to surplus revenue, saying that in terms of the Communications Act “all moneys of the authority which in the opinion of the Minister of Finance are in excess of its budgetary requirements must be paid into the Consolidated Fund. The authority is entitled to retain such sums as it reasonably requires for its operations”.

The payment vouchers also show that Macra splashed out MK4.1-million on the meals and accommodation of the information ministry’s principal secretary, Justin Saidi, over the relevant period, while the ministry’s former director of information, Bright Molande, benefited to the tune of about MK1-million.

In addition to the payments for meals and accommodation, Nankhumwa received other payments from Macra, including MK1.4-million on July 8 2015.

Other Macra payments to the ministry include:

  • MK3.1-million for repairs to the ministry’s vehicles;
  • MK8.9-million on July 10 2015 for local travel allowances for ministry officials attending a district information office function in Blantyre; and
  • MK949 475 on December 9 2015 for tyres for ministry vehicles

In the final transaction, on April 6 last year, Macra paid Ministry officials K160,000.

Government figures show that in the first quarter of 2015/16, the information ministry overspent its budget by MK3.2-billion. DM

Photo: A woman rides on the back of a bicycle in Salima more than 200 km out of Blantyre, Malawi 15 May 2017. EPA/AARON UFUMELI

This story was produced by the Malawi Centre for Investigative Journalism in association with the AmaBhngane Centre for InvestigativeJournalism.

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