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Opinion

Malawi in our mind

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

In a televised address on April 18 this year, a national leader stood before his people to announce the results of an audit he commissioned to look into how $7.95-million worth of government funds intended for the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic responses had been spent. Acting on the results of the audit that showed funds had vanished, been misused or left idle, 14 senior government officials were subsequently arrested by the police and a Cabinet member was sacked.

And we could only wish this happened in the Philippines. But this took place in another country.

President Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera made the televised announcement before the people of the Republic of Malawi. Speaking in their official language of English, President Chakwera disclosed that he already ordered the arrest of the officials and sacked a Cabinet member linked to the 6.2 billion kwacha ( $1 is equivalent to 779.4900 kwacha) worth of anti-COVID funds of the Malawian government that were found mis-spent. In Philippine peso, one kwacha is about P0.61.

“As I speak, over a dozen individuals suspected of committing the crimes exposed by this audit report have been arrested,” Mr. Chakwera announced. “So, I warn all the thieves in the civil service to mark my words. If a finger of evidence points to you as one of the thieves that stole COVID money for saving lives while hundreds of our people are dying of COVID, you are going to prison,” the Malawian President declared.

Like the rest of the world going through the severe impact of the pandemic, the former British colony of Malawi suffers resurgence of COVID-19 cases. Malawi has recorded 61,113 cases, with 2,238 deaths as of Sept. 13, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) COVID-19 dashboard. In WHO ranking, Malawi is 89th among COVID-impacted countries, with just a little over 1 million vaccine doses administered.

“On top of that, we will use the relevant laws to ensure that you pay back what you stole,” President Chakwera added. Based on the same audit report, he instructed his Secretary Cabinet to go after also against those public officers “whose direct watch the financial mismanagement occurred.”

Citing there will be no sacred cows, the Malawian President named his Labor Minister Ken Kandodo in particular. In that audit, Kandodo was found to have used 613,000 kwacha ($786.50), or equivalent to P39,325.12, worth of COVID-19 funds as cash allowance for a foreign trip.

“Even though the Minister has since returned the money, his usage of the funds means that the money was unavailable for its intended purpose when it was needed most. And I cannot have in my Cabinet any individual who either spend money budgeted for one thing on something else, or do not ask tough questions to ensure that the money they are spending on something was budgeted for that purpose,” President Chakwera fumed.

“I can assure you, every one of them, there is no place on Earth where these criminals will hide. The outrage and anguish you all feel from reading this audit report is not only righteous but also for one I personally feel,” President Chakwera cited. “As far as I’m concerned, anyone who steals or wastes public funds is a traitor in this country. At this time, I pray that God’s curse will rest on anyone who steals even one part of public funds that God has entrusted us to use in serving Malawians,” he wished aloud.

The 66-year-old president is a former pastor and evangelist-turned politician who won in a re-run in June last year in their country’s elections. Their elections were previously cancelled by judges due to fraud by Chakwera’s rival candidate, the incumbent president of the Republic of Malawi. When he took office and brought in power his Malawi Congress Party for the first time in 26 years, President Chakwera vowed to curb corruption.

With 18.628 million estimated population, Malawi is a landlocked country in southeastern Africa and bordered by Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique. It was only last Jan. 17 this year when Malawi’s government imposed its first anti-COVID restrictions after President Chakwera overruled a court ban on lockdowns.

Though much smaller in terms of land area and population than the Philippines, the people of Malawi enjoy a multi-party democracy. Under its 1995 Constitution, Malawi is ruled by a president, who both serves as the chief of state and head of the government, and elected every five years.

Video excerpts of the national address of President Chakwera went viral for quite a while here in the Philippines following last month’s reported “deficiencies” in the use of anti-COVID funds by the Department of Health (DOH). Our own Commission on Audit (COA) identified some P60-billion worth of “deficiencies” in the 2020 audit of DOH spending of its budget for anti-COVID measures.

These findings were contained in a Consolidated Management Letter that was transmitted to Health Secretary Francisco Duque III on May 4. Of that amount, state auditors found P42.41 billion was transferred to the Department of Budget and Management-Procurement Service (DBM-PS) without a memorandum of agreement and other supporting documents. The COA further noted it “deprived the government of the most (advantageous) prices and cast doubt on the regularity in the payment of transactions.”

In the on-going Senate Blue Ribbon Committee virtual public hearing, a group of associates of the former Davao City Mayor led by presidential adviser Michael Yang among them were implicated in alleged shenanigans in the emergency procurement of personal protective equipment (PPEs). Bulks of these medical supplies that included PPEs were found still stored at the DBM-PS warehouses and undelivered. While there was no specific mention of corruption, the COA found funds that went unused were “counter-beneficial to the Department’s continuing efforts toward controlling the spread of COVID-19.”

But how did President Duterte react to this COA report? I rest my case. For now, Malawi is in our minds.

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