In this interview, our reporter NELLIE JOBO engages CHRIS TUKULA director of assets declarations, who is also an accomplished legal and corporate governance practitioner, to give an update on progress on assets declarations and explain the effectiveness of public officers declaring their assets before and after occupying office. Excerpt:
How effective has the Office of the Director of Assets Declaration been in curbing corruption since its establishment?
Admittedly, curbing corruption is a multi-faceted long-term process. In that regard we may need more time than just the two years that the office has been in existence to accurately assess the efficacy of the office in fighting such a complex phenomenon. However, significant strides have been made towards that goal and I can safely affirm that the office has added a useful tool to the broader anti-corruption drive by enhancing transparency and accountability of public officers. The biggest benefit so far, is that the office has institutionalized the personal scrutiny of public officers who manage and make decisions impacting on public funds by providing a ready platform for analysing their assets and identifying illicit accumulation of wealth. For the first time in the history of this country we now have a data base of about 12 000 declarations filed by public officers explaining their assets, liabilities and business interests.
To the extent that the office is able to mobilise the receipt of these declarations and meet the demand for access to the documents from the media, the civil society, law enforcement agencies and even the general public, we are on course in the promotion of transparency and accountability in the public service and by extension in the fight against corruption. Malawians, like the rest of the world, can now pride themselves on having a platform for knowing who has what and will be able to track and demand explanations for any unusual wealth accumulation by public officers. In turn, public officers themselves are exercising greater caution in handling public funds, fully knowing they have a duty to explain sources of any wealth accumulation.
At first compliance among public officers was very low almost rendering the office redundant. To what extent has compliance improved and what action are you taking against those who are non-compliant?
The low compliance was largely attributable to low civic education about the asset declaration process. Public officers were either ignorant about the need and procedure for declaring or suspicious of the whole process as a witch hunt exercise. We have been able to reach out to all public sector institutions with briefing meetings and interactive sessions where most of the impeding issues have been demystified and resolved, resulting into a considerable increase in the compliance levels. Challenges still abound and we are still trying to understand the causes for the outstanding pockets of default but overall the compliance rates have tremendously improved. It has been all down to the scaling up of the civic education component. The major problem now appears to be delay in meeting the statutory deadlines as opposed to outright non-compliance. Compliance assessments are currently being done and we are going to make recommendations for sanctioning for all defaulters.
What strategy has the Office of Director of Asset Declaration put in place to ensure accuracy in declared assets, liabilities and business interests?
It is a statutory requirement that all declarations be verified for correctness and accuracy and blatant misrepresentation are sanctioned by criminal prosecution. First and foremost we are educating all public officers through briefing meetings and media notices on the need for honest declarations.
Secondly, we have just commenced the verification of selected declarations as a means of auditing and accrediting the accuracy of the information and this will be done in phases. A thorough verification process shall uncover irregularities requiring further scrutiny by law enforcement agencies or will confirm the correctness of the information. Minor and innocent inaccuracies are being amended in accordance with the law. A report on this exercise will be submitted to Parliament at the end of the financial year.
For failure or refusal of a public officer to declare assets, specifically what measures has the Office of Director of Asset declaration implemented to ensure appropriate punishments and penalties for making inaccurate statements?
Our priority has been to ensure that there is no knowledge gap on the legal requirements and the corresponding sanctions for default before taking errant public officers to book. This was very key to the success of any eventual action as this is a new law. Under the scheme of this law there is a ‘naming and shaming’ component. Currently, comprehensive compliance assessments are being done institution by institution. At the end of it all, we have lined up a publication of all the listed public officers that have filed their declarations in accordance with the law side by side with those that have not for Malawians to know.
Recently, public officers have been embroiled in allegations of fraud and corruption and what role does the directorate play in assisting with such investigations?
Two things. Firstly, our Verification Department has its ears on the ground all the time and we proactively monitor all things involving listed public officers that surface in the public domain. Apart from random sampling, the office does purposive and risk based verifications. All such officers are immediately put on verification to ensure there are no irregularities in their declarations. Any evidence of irregularities triggers recommendations to investigative and prosecutorial authorities.
Secondly, upon request, the office hands over all declarations made by a particular listed public officer who is under investigation or audit to the relevant investigative and audit offices as a way of collaborating and supporting their noble efforts.