And then there were 6 cash-gate buses: The curious case of Malawi gov’t with sleepwalking and pipolar syndrome

It seems there is no limit to what the Joyce Banda administration can do to outdo itself in in the art of clueless leadership.

Just when the world was trying to come to terms with how an entire government could have been paying billions to suppliers for the provision of no services and no supplies, the government had one more rabbit to pull out of its hat: the government woke up one morning and discovered it owned – not one, not two, not three, not four, not even five – but six, brand new Marco Polo buses it knew nothing about!

What is so annoying and hilarious at the same time is that government, itself, cannot believe it actually bought six buses without knowing anything about it! So confused it is about the matter that it is now investigating itself!

It was going to be one thing if some crooked civil servants had used government funds to buy buses for themselves. But, no, the buses were, actually, bought by the government for the government! If the government is confused about buying, one can only imagine how confused the citizens and indeed the rest of the world are.

The impounded buses

We have seen the buses. Four of them, packed at the police headquarters with two more on their way into the country (they are still being shipped in knowing very well that they are coming in to be seized).

One would expect that seeing them would actually make everyone believe what happened but this has only added more confusion to the mix, like, really? A government bought buses without knowing it bought buses? Really? A person, may be. But certainly, not a government. In fact, for a person, there is actually an admissible defense in the court of law for matters like that where an individual would claim that they may have done what they did because they either bipolar or suffer from some form of chronic sleepwalking syndrome.

An expert would take the stand and give his expert view on bipolar or sleepwalking syndrome and demonstrate how the accused fits the profile. But one cannot do that with a government. How can one prove that a government is suffering from bipolar or chronic sleepwalking syndrome? A bipolar-government? Or, for that matter, a sleepwalking government?

Anyway, considering how confused this government is, let me offer a simple solution, not to fix their mess but to mitigate or minimize damage especially to the taxpayers and citizen of this country. It is a known fact that six (6) Marco Polo Scania buses were purchased from Automotive Products Limited (APL) using Malawi Government funds.

And as far as APL as a seller is concerned, its obligation is to supply the said buses to the purchaser, the Malawi government, through  Ministry of Tourism. Simply put, APL has no claim over or further business vis-a-vis the buses.

In the final analysis we have a government with six, brand new buses it knew nothing about. You can only imagine the confusion. In its quest to exonerate itself, government, through the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and/or the Police decided to take the view that its purchase of the said buses was illegal. The institutions then proceed to put a restriction order on the buses to the effect that no one should deal with the buses unless and until the investigations are over. On the face of it this is a right approach given the premise that the Ministry of Tourism denies purchasing the buses. But it is clear that the property in the bus belongs to Malawi Government, bought by a Malawi Government cheque using Malawi Government funds.

Whether right or wrong procedures were followed in buying the same is neither here nor there. The situation is that Malawi Government has six (6) buses that it neither planned for nor budgeted for. Legally, it cannot reject delivery from APL especially when the latter was already paid for in full. So what is the way forward? First, the government should find a way of disposing of the buses as quickly as possible. Why am I saying this? We are all too familiar with cars rotting at Capital Hill, Police, MRA, courthouses and other government installations, pending Government decision. We cannot afford such a loss when there is a donor freeze on aid and the Reserve Bank of Malawi is warning us of lean months to come.

Are the buses not going to be needed for evidence in court, one may ask? Surely, they will. But my submission is that to prove a civil case of breach of trust or criminal case of theft, conspiracy to defraud, money laundering, etc, one does not need to produce the “wrong” or “illegally” purchased item, in this case, the buses. We do not keep bodies of murder victims in morgues waiting for the murder trial so they can be wheeled into court and displayed as evidence in court, do we? If there is need for such evidence, it is photographs that are shown, instead. The same can apply to the buses. Take pictures of the buses, sell them and use the money to buy medicines (of course, without using IFMIS).

Alternatively, the State should treat buses as “perishable goods” and make appropriate application to dispose of them under court order. Disposing the buses early would also be very politically correct. The longer they appear at Police headquarters, the more they will infuriate Malawians. Part of the catharsis to most Malawians is to lose sight of anything that reminds them of cashgate. In this case, lose sight of Marco Polo buses at either APL or Police stations.

Secondly, the ACB should expedite this straightforward case. There are so many leads to get to the root of this matter. They may begin by going to APL and finding out who gave them the LPO, payment cheque, etc. The LPO would disclose the person who issued it. The bank should produce a copy of the cheque and from there we would know the following: the signatories to the cheque, the person who authorized that the bank should honor the payment, the person who delivered the cheque to APL or indeed the person from whom the cheque was collected at Ministry of Tourism.

Surely, the Accountant General Department has a lot of explanation to do. Payment of MK520 Million to APL would obviously require very senior officials to approve. So, who are these individuals? A simple investigation would easily establish that. Similarly, the Ministry of Finance need to tell the nation how they were able to fund the Ministry of Tourism a whooping MK520 Million in a single month when Kamuzu Central Hospital, filled with suffering and dying patients, was struggling to source medical supplies after its funding was cut down to a meager K26 million from K100 million.

Definitely, the Ministry of Finance knew what heavy, single capital expenditure Ministry of Tourism was to incur. In particular, the person who made that allocation, that person being the Budget Director, was very much in the know. Unless, of course, he has bipolar or sleepwalking syndrome, as to allocate K520 million without knowing it.

It is against this background that I can understand the summoning of the following: The Speaker of Parliament, The Accountant General and the Budget Director. Obviously, the Speaker of Parliament will be expected to explain the total sum allocated to the Ministry of Tourism and how much was meant for capital expenditure. From that we are likely to learn that there was no allowances of purchase of buses let alone equipment to the tune of MK520 Million.

Next to be grilled is likely to be the Accountant General (AccG) who will be expected to explain his job description and the role of Accountant General’s Department. The AccG is likely going to be asked to divulge to the court who authorized the issuance of the cheques and the signatories. Obviously he will have to do a lot of explanations to court on how payment to APL outside normal Government activities was done especially in the absence of tender documents. And then, finally, the Budget Director will, hopefully, tell the court how the Ministry of Tourism landed itself such a lucrative funding for unbudgeted line items.

Let the show begin, already!

*Nelson Mudikamoto is Nyasa Times news analyst and columnist

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