The Peter Mutharika administration has gone out of its way to tell anyone willing to listen that the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) regime is committed to improving public finance management across the public sector in Malawi. Treasury—through Finance, Economic Planning and Development Minister Goodall Gondwe and his secretaries to the Treasury—has consistently claimed that it is doing everything possible to avoid a repeat of pilferage at the scale of the infamous Cashgate.
That blatant theft of public funds has left the country’s fiscal position in a shambles and shoved confidence in our public finance management system to its lowest ebb as evidenced by how fast and how far development partners have distanced themselves from the stench that has been Capital Hill, the very seat of government where cash was discovered in car boots on its way out and in other unsavoury places.
Now, the Public Finance Management Act of 2003 gives Treasury a lot of responsibilities over public finances in terms of revenue raising, spending and accountability.
Other legislations that guide Treasury work pertaining to public finances, including the national budget, include the Republican Constitution, the Public Audit Act, the Public Procurement Act and the Loan Authorization Act, among others.
Then there are Treasury instructions—which complement the PFM Act—and provide further guidelines on how public funds should be managed and accounted for.
Despite all these legal and regulatory provisions—which also provide penalties or sanctions if public officials fail to abide by them—several public officials violet these provisions and often get away with it. Some even get promoted despite their filthy track records. That is how bad things are.
This is why I sided with the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament in expressing dismay at Treasury’s lack of interest to push for tougher action against some former district commissioners who may have misappropriated public funds under their control.
Even the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) must be ashamed of its complicity in this regard, because it has embarrassingly failed to show leadership on an issue that has shattered citizens’ confidence in their government.
With such spineless leadership, are the billions that are funneled to councils under the Local Development Fun, District Development Fund and Constituency Development Fund safe?
Most critically perhaps is the whole fiscal decentralization experiment. Devolution has been crucial in helping to bring real power and development to the grassroots. But with more and more resources going to the councils—we are now nearing full devolution—it scares the hell out of me when I think of how fully autonomous DCs could be tinkering around with taxpayers’ money.
And Treasury, going by its current attitude, appears ready and eager to let them get away with it. That, my friends, is a hopeless situation for the country to be in.
We know that the National Local Government Finance Committee (NLGFC) is a toothless bulldog.
All it has succeeded to do is being a dutiful intergovernmental fiscal transfer courier.
Once in a while, it pretends to follow the money it sends to local authorities, but that is it, really.
Sure, it carries a few half-hearted audits of councils suspected to have misappropriated public funds after which equally half-hearted reports are written—then filed away to happily gather dust; a few cobwebs here and a few nibbling rats and cockroaches there.
Life goes on, but so does blatant theft.
But then, what can one expect from a ‘committee’? I mean, NLGFC is just a loose gathering of professionals mostly in the fields of economics, accounting, public finance and auditing with no real mandate to enforce anything around fiduciary management in councils.
But for Treasury to watch, and even cheer on, as controlling officers allow the country to be raped and ravaged by greedy public servants is a shame so great only a grossly incompetent government can tolerate.
And I think it is the same shameless incompetence that would make the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development—which has direct line control over district commissioners and council leaders—to run away from its responsibility of helping to discipline these local council officials; instead, it is pushing all the responsibility to Treasury.
Folks, we are experiencing leadership dysfunction at its worst here. n