Activists in disbelief over Mwalubunju’s suspected K157, 000 mismanagement of donor money at NICE

Malawi’s top human rights and gender activists have expressed disbelief over reports that Executive Director for the National Initiative for Civic Education (NICE), Ollen Mwalubunju, mismanaged finances at the European Union (EU)-funded civic education body.

The Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) is reportedly investigating Mwalubunju over allegations that he pocketed K157, 400 from his office for an activity that he did not attend.

He is currently on leave pending the outcome of the investigation. ACB Director General Martha Chizuma confirmed to the local media recently.

NICE Trust’s Executive Director Ollen Mwalubunju

“Yes, I remember this matter; we are investigating it,” Chizuma said. Mwalubunju was suspended last year and remains suspended, as the Bureau has not concluded its investigation.

According to a report, between April 26 and 27, 2021, ACB organised a workshop in Salima on the awareness of National Anti-Corruption Strategy and officers from Nice Trust were invited to this workshop.

Mwalubunju is reported to have instructed NICE Executive Assistant to prepare an internal requisition and made a provision for him for accommodation for two nights (26th and 27th April, 2021) at Sigelege Beach Resort in Salima and fuel at K23, 400 and allowances at K14, 000 — amounting to a total K37, 400.

“Two cheques were prepared from EU funds, one cheque amounting to K120,000 payable to Sigelege Hotel for accommodation for two nights and a cash cheque amounting to K37,400 for fuel and allowances. The Executive Director collected the accommodation cheque himself and the MK37,400 was cashed by an officer and the money was handed over to him,” reads part of the document.

However, around the same dates, Nice Trust, under government funding, organised a National Planning meeting in Salima which was held on April 28, 2021.

The account, titled ‘Abuse of EU and GOM funds by NICE Executive Director – Ollen Mwalubunju’, indicates that Mwalubunju only attended the event organised by Nice Trust despite collecting money from his office to attend the ACB National Anti-Corruption Strategy meeting.

“A budget was prepared for the planning meeting in which, among other provisions, Daily Subsistence Allowance [DSA) and transportation was provided for all participants. The Executive Director received K110,000 through a bank transfer; DSAs for own accommodation for two days (27th and 28th April, 2021) at K55,000 per day. The Executive Director also collected cash amounting to K16,500 for fuel for the same event.

“The Executive Director did not attend the ACB workshop on 27th or 28th April, 2021. He did not return the accommodation cheque. Instead, he used the same accommodation cheque to spend two nights at Sigelege Hotel and attended the National Planning meeting in which he was also paid the two nights Daily Subsistence Allowance. Furthermore, he did not refund the fuel and allowances amounting to K37, 400,” it reads.

Mwalubunju refused to comment, saying he is still waiting for the final report on the investigations.

He said once investigations are over, he will issue a public statement.

EU Ambassador Rune Skinnebach said the Union was informed about the issue, but assured that they would not be “withholding any funding to NICE or suspending any activity due to this development.”

“With the view to protect the operations of the competent investigative and judicial authorities, the EU has a strict policy of not commenting on fraud related investigations while ongoing,” he told a local media.

Skinnebach said however that the EU has a zero-tolerance policy on embezzlement, misuse and mismanagement of EU funds.

“Therefore, in case of confirmed irregularities, this case shall follow the standard procedure of recovery of EU funds,” he said.

But some of Malawi’s renowned human rights and gender activists have questioned the motive behind the investigation.

While opting for anonymity, one of the human rights activists who worked with Mwalubunju at the Centre for Huma Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR), said he was not convinced that his former ally in the fight human rights struggle abused the funds.

“I know Ollen inside and out. He’s a very difficult person in term of financial management. I remember when we were at CHRR, he would demand receipts for even K10 and for someone to accuse him of financial mismanagement of K157, 000 today, I would be very surprised,” he said.

He wondered why, in the first place, the NICE system could not trace and correct the anomaly.

“Honestly speaking, K157, 000 is too little of Ollen’s callibre can abuse. Probably, there is something we don’t know. But the Ollen I know cannot abuse donor money unless he changed recently. He handled billions of donor funding at CHRR without any query of mismanagement. How come he should abuse a mere K157, 000 today?” he asked.

On the other hand, Kaliya suspected internal politics at NICE to be at the heart of the report.

She argued that, while accountability is supposed to be a paramount principle in the management of donor funds, her former workmates could not comprehend why NICE system could not correct the anomaly and recover the money.

“I am not backing him, but I believe there are some people who set Ollen a trap. How can someone, who has handled billions of donor funds, eventually mismanage K157, 000? I must be very honest with, I was very disappointed and disheartened to hear that Ollen was being investigated over such issues,” said Kaliya.

“I wish you, the journalists, could go deeper with your investigations to get to the root of this issue. Otherwise, I have the feeling that someone is just out there to embarrass Ollen,” she added.

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