Maverick Citizen

Maverick Citizen: Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup 14

Covid-19 and the epidemic of corrupt governments: ‘A heart-wrenching, unscrupulous and filthy feeding frenzy’

Covid-19 and the epidemic of corrupt governments: ‘A heart-wrenching, unscrupulous and filthy feeding frenzy’
Beating corruption requires taking seriously the psychological legacies of apartheid and dismantling the socio-economic ones, says the writer.

The Southern Africa Human Rights Roundup is a weekly column aimed at highlighting important human rights news in Southern Africa. It integrates efforts of human rights defenders and facilitates evidence-based engagement with key stakeholders, and institutions on the human rights situation across the region. The weekly roundup is a collaboration between the Southern Africa Human Rights Defenders Network (SAHRDN) and Maverick Citizen.

The scientific community has time and time again advised that Covid-19 is lethal to people who have pre-existing conditions. It seems to be true also that Covid-19 has shown that countries with pre-existing governance deficits and prone to corruption are turning out to be looters’ paradises. 

In this edition, we look at how corruption in virtually all countries of southern Africa has undermined the fight against Covid-19 and put the lives of millions in jeopardy. 

Corruption – a pre-existing cancer in Africa

The Corruption Perception Index (2019) shows sub-Saharan Africa is the lowest-scoring region, signifying that corruption is rife and a way of life in the region. The pillaging of public funds and resources has become the norm often carried out by well-syndicated political connections. 

Being a pandemic of historic proportions, Covid-19 involves massive resource mobilisation. In the context of weak rule of law, compromised public institutions and ineffective corruption prevention mechanisms, the pandemic has seen a significant increase in grand corruption enriching a few individuals, effectively compromising the health and safety of everyone.

Corruption, defined by the World Bank as the “abuse of public office for private gain,” has devastating consequences for human health. The Institute for Security Studies believes that:

“Corruption is the most neglected human rights violation of our time. It fuels injustice, inequality and deprivation, and cheats the continent’s governments of some $50-billion annually.”

Years of rampant corruption have weakened institutions in Africa, including the health system needed to combat Covid-19 as well as the justice systems needed to prosecute and penalise corruption.  

Covid-19 as a corruption multiplier

On 9 July, United Nations (UN) experts warned of the devastating human cost of corruption, including human rights abuses if governments fail to guard against fraud and bribery in healthcare supply chains as they secure essential medicines and personal protective equipment (PPE) in the fight against Covid-19.

In a report presented to the Human Rights Council, the UN Working Group on Business and Human Rights argued that if medicines are diverted because a bribe is paid, innocent people deprived of treatment could die. The Working Group also urged states to act rigorously and in a more integrated way to ensure that companies prevent corruption in business activities and ensure respect for human rights, as called for in the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Nearly 100 civil society organisations from across the world wrote to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the wake of the pandemic, urging the IMF to include anti-corruption measures in emergency funding given to governments. 

This warning, regrettably, came to nothing. The fight against Covid-19 has been riddled with grand corruption. 

It is important to highlight that some corruption cases never get reported and journalists face severe reprisals for daring to expose official corruption. 

The biggest area targeted by the “covidpreneurs” (a term that has been given to those who unlawfully and unethically manipulate tenders linked to Covid-19) is PPE. Contracts to distribute items such as masks, gloves, and medical visors have been abused by companies allegedly connected with people in power or positions in health departments. The corruption is systematic, manifesting itself variously, including partisan distribution of pandemic-related assistance, kickbacks for tenders, and bribes in law enforcement. 

Corruption pandemic feeding off the Covid-19 pandemic 

The deputy health minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Albert M’peti Biyombo, is reported to have leaked a letter to the prime minister in which he accused Cabinet members of receiving kickbacks on contracts for the coronavirus response, while health workers went unpaid for months. He claimed that a “mafia network”, which is taking kickbacks of up to 35% off contracts for supplies, is embezzling Covid-19 funds.

The Office of the President of Botswana sacked the country’s Ministry of Health and Wellness permanent secretary and deputy permanent secretary in April. In May, the president disbanded the ministry’s procurement following reports of possible collusion with tenderpreneurs-cum-covidpreneurs taking advantage of the coronavirus panic to overcharge, cheat the government and steal public funds.

On 24 May, the Sunday Standard reported that the government had ancelled two tenders worth more than P80-million ($7-million) which had been awarded to Pula Rich Investments and Mileage Air (Pty) Ltd to supply testing kits. It was noted that the same ministry awarded the P80-million tender to the two companies although they did not qualify. 

In Mauritius, the government pounced on the opportunity to profit from the repatriation of over 3,500 Covid-19 stranded Mauritian workers abroad through a corrupt repatriation plan. The plan was coordinated in an exclusive public-private “partnership” between the government and Air Mauritius, a subsidiary of Mauritius Air Holdings Ltd, a major Mauritian tourism corporation, of which the government owns over 43%. The Jugnauth administration and Air Mauritius restricted travel to the island by any other means but its own. Then, it raised the prices in an attempt to aid the airline’s falling shares.

In June, Mozambican authorities detained two journalists in Sofala province, central Mozambique, on Covid-19 related corruption charges, according to the Office for Combating Corruption (GCCC) in the province. 

The correspondent for Deutsche Welle (DW), and Jorge Malangaze, a “freelancer”, were both accused of having received bribes so as to not publish content related to the violation of the rules of the state of emergency in a hotel establishment in Sofala province. They both reportedly received 5,000 meticais ($70) and were arrested in the act.

In Lesotho the National Emergency Command Centre (NECC), comprising various government ministries and departments, and which is charged with spearheading the fight against Covid-19, was in May accused of misusing public funds meant to fight the virus. According to the Lesotho Times, a leaked budget revealed corrupt procurement plans with a non-contact thermometer.

In April, CSOs in Malawi, operating under the banner Anti-Corruption Alliance, came out with guns blazing following the allocation of K1-billion ($1.3-million) Covid-19 funds to the then-first lady, Getrude Mutharika’s organisation, Beautify Malawi. The CSOs expressed concern over the lack of transparency and accountability on how the pandemic funds were being handled. 

According to the Nyasa Times there were concerns that members of the Cabinet committee on coronavirus were each receiving K300,000 ($407) for each news media briefing they held to update the public on the pandemic, and the total had blown up to K1-billion ($1.3-million) in allowances by 7 April.  

In a separate incident, the Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) called for the immediate resignation of Minister of Information Mark Botomani and Minister of Health Jappie Mhango for abuse of Covid-19 funds, drawing of hefty allowances (K450,000 [$610] for Cabinet ministers and K350,000 [$475] for members of Parliament) and trying to cover up the same. HRDC accused the ministers of being heartless, considering that health workers did not have adequate PPE to effectively execute their duties.    

When the state of emergency was announced on 18 March in Namibia, Prime Minister Saara Kuugongelwa-Amadhila reportedly suspended procurement rules so that purchases of Covid-19 essential goods and services could be sped up. 

In April 2020 the Ministry of Industrialisation, Trade and SME Development identified SMEs across the country to make masks on behalf of the government of Namibia. The masks would be distributed to pensioners, marginalised communities and other vulnerable groups in the country. The SMEs were reportedly provided with material to make the masks.

However, Market Namibia Tender Bulletin later reported that the ministry did not issue a public tender for the procurement of suitable materials for mask production. No information was available on where the ministry had got the material that was distributed to mask makers, but it was reported that the material was valued at N$40,000 (US$2,400).

According to the Procurement Tracker Namibia, the masks were to be provided for between N$15  (US$0.91) – N$25 (US$1.51), but the price had been increased drastically by some of the state-sponsored mask manufacturers, resulting in a public uproar. Mask makers, however, claimed that the material provided by the government was not of a good quality and that they had to buy better fabric, which pushed up the price of masks. 

For years, offices, ministries, agencies and state-owned enterprises have been in the spotlight for failing to produce, submit and make public annual procurement plans, individual procurement plans and quarterly procurement progress reports. Such institutional weaknesses have created fertile ground for corruption and mismanagement of state resources; for example big infrastructure projects such as the Hosea Kutako International Airport and road-building contracts in and around Windhoek. 

In the early days of the pandemic, government officials in Zimbabwe looted Covid-19 funds through a corrupt allowance scam. In the words of a senior government official:

“You have those in higher offices, the principal directors, finance directors and their peers looting fuel, accommodation allowances as they crisis cross the country on errands that don’t even make sense, while those who are actually doing the work get nothing.” 

The Minister of Health, Dr Obadiah Moyo, was charged with criminal abuse of office after he approved a $60-million contract awarded to a company allegedly co-owned by President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s son, Collins, known as Drax Consult SALG (Drax International). The company allegedly supplied medical equipment to fight Covid-19 at inflated prices. 

Zimbabweans are, however, now cynical following arrests of many high level officials that don’t end up in successful prosecution. The phenomenon is now commonly referred to as the “catch and release practice”, which is seriously undermining the fight against corruption that the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission is waging. In July 2019, Tourism Minister Prisca Mupfumira was charged with corruptly misusing $95-million from the state pension fund. Mupfumira and all former ministers who have been arrested for corruption are free on bail while their cases are stuck in courts.

Covid-19 related corruption has been reported across South Africa, including Eastern Cape, one of the poorest regions and a growing hotspot.  

The Special Investigating Unit (SIU) announced a probe into allegations of corruption involving the R500-billion relief fund to ease the impact of Covid-19. At least 90 businesses are suspected of setting up corrupt contracts with the health department. 

One deal, reportedly worth around R125-million, relates to a company called Royal Bhaca supplying the government PPE in Gauteng. It charged more than four times the regular price. The scandal could not have hit closer to power as the company is owned by the husband of President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, Khusela Diko. 

The systematic corruption seems to involve people with pre-established links in government and local authorities. The Sunday Times reported that Harvey Sicelo Buthelezi received contracts worth R873-million. Buthelezi would have had connections across the Gauteng government spectrum – Covid-19 funds are allocated from the National Treasury to the provinces – to buy the products needed. Between 2006 and 2010, more than R1-billion was stolen from the Gauteng Department of Health when, according to Buthelezi’s resumé, he appears to have been part of the department’s leadership corps. 

In another corrupt deal, after inflating face mask prices by up to 900%, companies Sicuro Safety and Hennox Supplies admitted guilt and were fined.

Lockdown conditions have also created an environment ripe for police corruption in South Africa. In April, three officers from the Tshwane Metro Police Department (TMPD) were arrested for extorting a bribe from a motorist in Pretoria, whom they accused of defying lockdown regulations. The officers are alleged to have threatened to impound the motorist’s vehicle if he did not pay them R7,000. 

Talking the talk, never walking the talk – clampdown on whistle-blowers

On July 11, the African Union (AU) observed the 4th annual African Anti-Corruption Day. The day was established in commemoration of the AU’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Corruption, which was adopted on 11 July, 2003. But the relentless clampdown on whistle-blowers has betrayed the hollow facade.

Barely a month after commemorating African Anti-Corruption Day, Zimbabwean authorities are hounding journalists and political opponents who have criticised authorities’ handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Jacob Ngarivhume, leader of an opposition party,Transform Zimbabwe, and Hopewell Chin’ono, a prominent Zimbabwean investigative journalist, were both arrested on grounds of inciting violence in their calls to end corruption and for allegedly participating in plans for an anti-government demonstration scheduled for 31 July. 

The clampdown on pro-democrats has gone into overdrive and has been met with widespread criticism, including by the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC), which issued a statement on 26 July.

In Eswatini, the police have also hounded journalists who have criticised authorities’ handling of the Covid-19 crisis.   

History merely repeating itself

While Covid-19 is unprecedented, this is not the first time that countries in Africa have faced a public health crisis that has created what some have referred to as a “heart-wrenching, unscrupulous and filthy feeding frenzy

The Ebola outbreak between 2014 and 2016 in West Africa also revealed a lack of transparency surrounding large transfers of money. The International Red Cross estimated the cost of corruption to the outbreak in Guinea and Sierra Leone to be more than $6-million. The then-minister of health in the DRC was convicted for embezzling more than $400,000 from that country’s Ebola response funds. 

It is clear therefore that impunity breeds impunity. Covid-19 breeds Covid-19. Corruption breeds corruption. All these evils are mutually reinforcing to kill societies. They must be fought.

Arnold Tsunga is a human rights lawyer and the technical and strategy adviser of the SAHRDN. Tatenda Mazarura-Mhike is a woman human rights defender (WHRD), a professional rapporteur and an election expert. Mark Heywood is editor of Maverick Citizen. DM/MC



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