The National Audit Office (NAO) is splashing millions renovating its headquarters in Lilongwe that experts three years ago condemned as unfit for human use and recommended that it should be vacated and demolished.
The move to renovate the offices has alarmed a Lilongwe City Council (LCC) buildings expert, who says a condemned structure cannot be refurbished.
NAO itself—through Auditor General Stevenson Kamphasa—confirmed to a parliamentary committee in May that the building was condemned and he described it as a “ticking time bomb”. But a visit to the rented NAO headquarters last week found that the offices are being painted, even as the cracks that make it unfit for human occupation remained agape.
Weekend Nation could not immediately establish how much the maintenance works will cost, although NAO spokesperson Rabson Kagwam’minga said this week that the agency has so far spent around K3.4 million on the ongoing maintenance works.
The country’s supreme auditing institution pays at least K30 million per month in rentals for the building, according to NAO.
The renovation activities at the office have raised eyebrows even among some officials at the institution. One auditor said he and some of his colleagues have wondered why a condemned structure is being repainted, fitted with tiles and costing the taxpayer so much millions.
It was the Department of Buildings in the Ministry of Transport and Public Works that said the structure should be demolished to pave the way for reconstruction.
The department observed that the structure’s beams and pillars holding the roof had moved off position and the pillars had tilted. The building was also condemned for blocked water drainage.
Appearing before cluster meetings by the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Public Accounts, and Budget and Finance, in Lilongwe in May this year, Kamphasa said the office building is too dilapidated and could collapse anytime.
Heappealed to government for a new office building, saying the current one is unfit for accommodation. Kamphasa told the committee that the estimate for a new office building would be around $30 million (about K22 billion at the current exchange rate).
At the cluster meetings, deputy chairperson for the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament Kamlepo Kalua said his committee would help push for a new building.
“The Auditor General cannot be operating from such a building. We need the office to be secured at all times since it is a governance institution,” said the parliamentarian. In an interview last week, NAO’s Kagwam’minga said the Department of Buildings condemned the structure in 2014.
He said the matter was reported to the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Physical Planning. Kagwam’minga said the ministry assured NAO that a new office building would be identified and secured by 2015, but that never happened.
“Three years down the line, we continue to occupy the same structure because the ministry is yet to secure the office accommodation for us.
“Their message is that we should wait, yet the condition of the building has continued to deteriorate over time, posing a serious life threat to our members of staff and clients alike,” he said.
But Kagwam’minga said the works being done at NAO now are not necessarily renovations, but minor annual maintenance works just to improve the working environment while awaiting new office accommodation.
“You should appreciate that the building is still being occupied and, therefore, cannot be abandoned completely. “NAO consulted the Ministry of Lands, Housing and Physical Planning before embarking on these minor maintenance works and will continue to consult on any course of action,” said Kagwam’minga.
The NAO spokesperson feared the renovations may cost more as the office intends to improve the outlook of some of the offices.
While acknowledging that the building continues to pose a threat to users, Kagwam’minga said there is nothing that can be done, as government has other priorities.
But architectural expert and principal building inspector at LCC Chichizga Msumba, said any building that is condemned is not fit for renovations.
“The occupants of such a structure are at risk,” he warned.
Ministry of Transport and Public Works spokesperson James Chakwera said in another interview that the ministry is not aware of any works being done at NAO.
He was, however, quick to say that it was possible that since they are still occupying the building, NAO probably found it necessary to carry out routine maintenance works.
“It’s difficult to find office space at the moment and that is probably why NAO continues to occupy the building,” said Chakwera, adding the ministry has not changed its position on the recommendations made earlier.