By SYLVESTER MWALE
THE revelations of misappropriation of public funds going by the 2012 Auditor General’s Report is a source of concern for any citizen.
The situation is made worse by the fact that those responsible for overseeing public resources have seemingly failed, or struggled, to justify the blatant misuse of money meant for development every time they are brought before the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
Issues such as non-recovery of advances and loans, irregular payments, unretired imprest, wasteful expenditure and overpayments have been prominent features in the current and previous Auditor General’s Reports, but nothing seems to be done to stop the loot.
It has been a sorry sight at times to see permanent secretaries and other chief executive officers being grilled to the bone by the PAC chaired by Chipangali MMD Member of Parliament (MP) Vincent Mwale.
Needless to say that those holding public offices are servants of the people and are expected to conduct themselves in a manner that would not only protect their integrity but also serve the interests of members of the public.
But the recent failure by public officers to account for the huge sums of public money raises questions as to whether these officers have the public interests at heart every time they are executing their duties.
It also questions the Government’s ambition to implement various development projects with its hard-earned and scarce resources.
Since the release of the latest Auditor General’s Report and subsequent commencement of the PAC sittings, Zambians have been subjected to conspicuous reports of misappropriation of public funds.
Some controlling officers have had their nightmare – in some cases looking lost as they try to respond to queries caused by their subordinates in their offices.
One of the most glaring issues is the advance payment of K3 million to an unregistered firm only known as Build Trust.
The company was selected out of 19 others, at a tender sum of K15 million, to carry out works at Milenge Trades Training Institute in Luapula Province for the duration of 104 weeks starting on April 18, 2011.
The works included the construction of two classroom blocks, two hostel blocks, a workshop, administration block, library, two ablution blocks, a high-cost house, six medium-cost houses, a power sub-station and the installation of a power generator.
Auditor General Anna Chifungula sought to know how a company was paid in 2011 when it was only incorporated in April 2012.
There are other examples – old and new – in the manner public officers have ostensibly failed to abide by the financial guidelines and regulations, a situation that has caused an uproar among citizens.
It is from such a background that questions are raised as to what could be the solution to these reported misappropriations of public funds, or whether it is time to mandate the Auditor General’s office with powers to prosecute.
Alliance for Democracy and Development (ADD) president Charles Milupi recently suggested that one way of reducing these reports was by empowering the Auditor General with constitutional powers to initiate prosecution.
“We need to enhance the role of the Auditor General to make them have responsibility for initiating prosecutions to those who are erring,” Mr Milupi said.
“At the moment, you can be chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and you expose so many things but you still rely on the Executive to prosecute, if they want to….”
Such arguments have been hatched from the lessons from other African countries such as Sierra Leone.
The West African country has adopted an approach where its Anti-Corruption Commission Act gives power to the Sierra Leone Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) to send cases directly to court.
Before the changes, the ACC in Sierra Leone was required to send all their cases to the Attorney General for approval first, like is the case in Zambia today.
It has been argued that such an arrangement only resulted in many cases against top government officials perishing on the table of the Attorney General who never prosecuted those matters.
Transparency International Zambia (TIZ) is one of the corruption watchdog organisations that have been critical of the recent abuse and misappropriation of public funds as revealed by the Auditor General’s Report.
TIZ executive director Goodwell Lungu said disciplining and dismissing officers involved would act as a deterrent to abuse of public resources.
“There is need for lasting measure that will bring to en end the abuse of public resources,” Mr Lungu said. “But most importantly, erring officers should be disciplined or fired.”
It is hardly an exaggeration of fact to state that a negative image of the public officers has been reflecting on the general public and unless drastic change is made, it will be hard to turn around the perception.
“I think the misuse of public funds is for those in higher positions and not an ordinary person,” said Idah Choolwe, a business person at Lusaka City Market. “We read about misuse of public funds but I think there is no one who is getting arrested for that.”
She noted that for a long time now, controlling officers were failing to account for the money or offer explanation on how certain funds meant for development had been used.
“I was upset one day when I heard that some council officials had bought themselves Blackberry phones using the money meant for development purposes,” she said. “If I had powers, I would have taken those people to prison without trial.”
Although there seems to be little progress made to curb the vice, the Ministry of Finance last year launched a two-year Public Financial Management (PFM) Reform Strategy as a possible solution to misuse of taxpayers’ money.
The new strategy takes over from the Public Expenditure Management and Financial Accountability Programme (PEMFA), which ended in December 2012.
It is expected to cost US$78 million, and it is so far symbolic in the Government’s political will to reduce the misuse of public funds.
“What we expect such a reform strategy to do is to help us minimise mismanagement of scarce resources,” said Finance Minister Alexander Chikwanda when he launched the strategy.
For majority Zambians, there is hardly doubt that the reports coming from the Public Accounts Committee are becoming interesting, although irritating when one takes into consideration high poverty levels.
While mandating the Auditor General with prosecuting powers seems to be a farfetched dream, perhaps the only reform needed is to ensure that when the Auditor General’s Report is out, it is sent to all relevant investigative wings.
The Constitution should enshrine this process as automatic and emphasise the liability for prosecution squarely on the investigative wings, working with the DPP and the Attorney General.
However, this in itself could not stop the plunder currently being witnessed. It would be important that every year the investigative wings are compelled to give an account to the PAC on how they proceeded on each task of the reported misappropriation.
While Parliament would have no big stick to whip the named institutions, it could serve a useful role in shouting loud to the public that the relevant investigative wings and DPP are not doing their job.