While I join many commentators in applauding the President’s bold steps following the release of the COVID-19 Audit Report, there are quite several factual matters to be addressed beyond the arrests.
The following are my key picks of what should be prioritised to sort out Public Finance Management disorders:
Firstly, the Public Finance Management Act of 2003 mandates Controlling Officers as the principal gate keepers of public resources at Ministry level and not cabinet ministers who are there just to provide political guidance. Having competent, upright, strong, learned, experienced, selfless and non-partisan Controlling Officers is very critical in public finance management.
Unfortunately, reading through the report, and looking at the background of some Controlling Officers gives us empirical evidence that some, if not most of them, fall short of their calling. Government should really review this cadre and close the gaps urgently.
Secondly, the Public Procurement and Disposal of Assets (PPDA) Act establishes Internal Procurement and Disposal of Asset Committees (IPDCs) across all Ministries and Government entities.
The key responsibility of IPDCs is to review and approve procurement recommendations from the procurement departments. Reading the Audit Report, there is empirical evidence that most of the IPDCs are either incompetent, or not knowledgeable of the requirements of the PPDA Act or they may have compromised their judgement. These Committees must be reviewed, retrained, or reconstituted. The Committees should be chaired by a competent, senior, and ethical member of the Ministry delegated by the Controlling Officer.
Thirdly, the PPDA Act requires that procurements of certain thresholds should be submitted to the PPDA Authority for no-objection before award of contracts. The report is not clear on the role PPDA Authority played in the procurement process but looks like the Authority is still weak and almost non-existent.
Government should review the operations of PPDA Authority and capacitate it to start functioning and provide a layer of control in public procurement.
Fourthly, the Public Accountants and Auditors Act of 2013 requires that all personnel holding themselves as accountants in public and private sectors should be well trained and qualified to do their work and should be registered with the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Malawi (ICAM) and Malawi Accountants Board (MAB) and licensed to do their work.
There is evidence in the report that most of the Directors of Finance and accounting personnel in Government fall short of the basic competencies to be trusted with the responsibility of looking after public resources and I doubt if all of them are registered and licensed.
I strongly recommend that the Department of Human Resource and Development and the Accountant General must thoroughly review and strengthen this cadre. You cannot entrust someone to fly an Aircraft if he or she is not trained and licensed in aviation.
Fifthly, the Malawi Institute of Procurement and Supply (MIPS) Act of 2016 requires that all procurement personnel should be well trained, qualified, and registered with MIPS before starting to execute procurement functions.
The report shows that this cadre was found short of the basic competence in basic procurement. The integrity, independence and ethical standing of most of the procurement personnel in Government is questionable. The Department of Human Resource and Development in liaison with MIPS and the PPDA Authority should seriously relook at the qualification, competence, licensing, and integrity of this cadre and clean it thoroughly. The recommendations and dealings of this cadre as far as this report is concerned is very sad (for lack of a better word).
I do understand the efforts that the President and the Vice President are putting to “clear the rubble” but this work should not be underrated. It needs proper buy in, intelligence and energy from the Cabinet and all senior Government officials. Mindset change is difficult to achieve when the majority in the team still harbour self-interest and selfish ambitions of defrauding their own people.
We really need to join hands and act so quickly as this report gives us a picture of what is going on in this country. My worry is that if we don’t sort out this, the current and the next generations will be trapped in extreme poverty forever.
The lives of Malawians is at our mercy and I trust we have the capacity of sorting out this mess. The arrests that have been done recently, though in some cases seem not enough and selective, is somehow evidence of some bold steps but what Malawians want is their money back as we all know the arrests and legal battles will cost us even more.
*The author is a public finance management expert