Twists and turns characterised the status of former National Oil Company of Malawi (Nocma) deputy chief executive officer (CEO) Helen Buluma yesterday after she filed her resignation and the parastatal’s board communicated later that she was fired.
The developments come about a month and a half after the Office of the Ombudsman directed the Nocma board to terminate her contract on the basis that she was unprocedurally recruited in 2019.
Buluma’s four-paged resignation letter is dated November 14 2022 while the Nocma board’s communication terminating her contract signed by chairperson Colleen Zamba is dated November 15 2022.
In a telephone interview yesterday, Buluma confirmed resigning from her position as deputy CEO with immediate effect, but feigned ignorance on the termination of her employment contract by the Nocma board.
On the other hand, Zamba, who is also Secretary to the President and Cabinet (SPC), confirmed the termination of Buluma’s contract, but denied knowledge of her resignation.
In her communication to Buluma, she said her contract was terminated in compliance with the determination of the Office of the Ombudsman. Ironically, the Nocma board had earlier objected to the determination to fire Buluma.
Reads Zamba’s letter titled ‘Termination of Employment Contract’: “As you are aware, the Ombudsman made a determination that Nocma should relieve you of your duties. We wrote to the Ombudsman on 31st October 2022 objecting to her determination to effect the decision.
“However, we have obtained alternative legal advice from the Attorney General. It is evident from the updated advice that Nocma is compelled to undertake the determination of the Ombudsman even if disregarded. Any review rights are the domain of the courts.
“Consequently, I regret to inform you that you have been relieved from your duties, effective immediately in compliance with the Ombudsman’s determination.”
But in a brief interview yesterday, Buluma said she was yet to see her dismissal letter and insisted she resigned on her own accord on November 14 2022.
She said: “But I am told it [the letter] was delivered at the office this afternoon [yesterday]. I was in office as normal and worked the whole of yesterday, the 15th November, and was in constant touch with the board chairperson, both through WhatsApp and her office into the night.
“I worked with the company secretary sending appointment letters to the newly appointed directors and inviting them to their first board meeting until late into the night. I have also been working today [yesterday].”
Zamba also said she only received Buluma’s letter yesterday through WhatsApp and said: “Government does not operate through WhatsApp.”
Meanwhile, Ministry of Information and Digitisation yesterday issued a press release stressing that Buluma had been fired and advised the public to ignore the purported resignation letter.
In her resignation letter, Buluma cited alleged “immense pressure” she faced over the past months from Zamba, Ministry of Energy Principal Secretary (PS) Alfonso Chikuni and others to bring on board new fuel suppliers. She said some of the suppliers are expensive financiers.
She said on several occasions, she provided her advice to Zamba on the due processes to be followed in fuel procurement, but the pressure did not relent.
Reads Buluma’s letter: “The final trigger for me has been the most recent meeting which was called by the PS Energy and chaired by yourself [SPC], held yesterday evening Sunday, 13th November 2022 at the OPC boardroom whose main agenda was to discuss an express of interest from GY and Sons to supply fuel for Nocma and the Mera [Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority] board resolution which was not to declare a fuel supply emergency.”
She further claimed that she had faced numerous pressure from politicians, which put her life in danger.
Buluma, who said her last day in the office will be November 18 before proceeding on leave, claimed that the pressure also included the need for Nocma to surrender Chipoka depot in Salima to an unnamed politician in Malawi Congress Party (MCP) and his Asian business partners as well as one big transporter brokerage company working directly with politicians to take all of Nocma’s transport business and claim billions from Mera.
In an interview yesterday, Ombudsman Grace Malera said her office was yet to receive formal communication from Nocma board on the action taken to relieve Buluma of her duties.
She said: “As the Office of the Ombudsman, we will only decide on our further conduct of the Nocma deputy CEO matter upon receipt of further communication/report from Nocma board chairperson.
“Right now the last communication we received was on the position they had taken regarding non-compliance with the Ombudsman’s determination on the matter to which we responded accordingly as per applicable laws.”
Buluma is also a key witness in the fuel importation contracts case involving former minister of Energy Newton Kambala, Alliance for Democracy (Aford) president Enoch Chihana and President Lazarus Chakwera’s former adviser Chris Chaima Banda.
On the future of her role in the case, she said: “I cannot speak of the matter in court, ACB [Anti-Corruption Bureau] is best placed.”
Findings of the investigations by the Ombudsman show that Buluma was recruited in 2019 following then president Peter Mutharika’s directive, which flouted Section 4 of the Public Service Act, as the appointment was not through an open and competitive process.
She began work as deputy CEO on August 26 2019, but her contract was signed on March 27 2020.