- Despite pledges by Malawi's new President, Bingu wa Mutharika, in his inaugural speech on 24 May as well as in the 'State of the Nation' address on 29 June in Parliament that his government will reduce on expenditure and avoid unnecessary spending, members of Blantyre City Assembly have wasted nearly a million Kwacha (euro 7,500) of public money taking vendors on a trip to Lake Malawi, 'The Chronicle' can reveal.
After receiving a K95 million (euro 711,000) government grant last month, the Assembly, which had debts of more than K17 million (euro 127,000), took 60 vendors from Malawi's second city, Blantyre, and nearby Limbe to Mangochi on a two-day excursion. Mangochi is a popular holiday resort at the southern shores of Lake Malawi.
Accompanied by some senior officials, councillors and assembly directors, the vendors travelled in government vehicles and were given an allowance of K3,000 (euro 23) each per day. The total cost, without fuel and drivers, came to an estimated K800,000 (euro 6,000) with one source saying that the figure was in excess of K1 million (euro 7,500).
The trip went ahead despite the Blantyre Assembly's recent financial difficulties, with reports indicating that even their telephone lines had been disconnected due to millions of Kwacha (euro 15,000) of outstanding bills. Blantyre Water Board had also cut off the water supply to many assembly establishments.
An unnamed senior member of staff from the Blantyre Assembly disclosed the scandal after despairing of the waste. Speaking exclusively to 'The Chronicle', he said: "Imagine vendors getting K3,000 a night when the staff get K1,500 as a night allowance. Where is the logic here?"
A Blantyre town vendor, who went on the trip on Tuesday 29 June, confirmed that it was a celebratory trip for helping the United Democratic Front (UDF) back into power. "It was appeasement for the work we did," he said.
But another source, an officer in the Blantyre City Assembly who did not wish to be named, said the real motive of the trip was to discuss moving the vendors from the streets to a flea market that was specifically built for them at great cost. Vendors have steadfastly refused to move fearing a loss of business.
Despite the Assembly's good intentions to negotiate with the vendors, the source admitted the Mangochi trip should never have happened. He said: "To be truthful, it was a complete waste of resources."
Additionally, while there, the vendors refused to accept the K3,000 allowance given and caused havoc - demanding K10,000 each per night and when this was denied beating up UDF staff, deflating vehicle tyres and even returning to Blantyre in the middle of the night.
- The officers are angry that so much money was spent on a meeting that never even took place, said the source adding: "We are hoping that through this experience the politicians will stop treating the vendors with kid gloves. They have been wasting so much taxpayers¹ money through wasteful things."
The trip, organised by Blantyre Mayor John Chikakwiya, is not the first time the Assembly has wasted public money on vendors in a bid to win political allegiance or to get them to move to the new site. Both sources claim the government has taken the vendors to Lake Malawi on at least one other occasion and spent millions of Kwacha on allowances and other expenses.
It is also alleged that the vendors are paid whenever they are called upon to meet assembly management or the Mayor over the issue of the flea market. Payment is even said to have occurred during May this year - at a time when the assembly had difficulty paying staff.
Speaking on the phone last Thursday, Mayor John Chikakwiya defended the trip, saying it cost only K700,000 in total. In a fax, he said: "The Mangochi trip was important for the Assembly since it's the Assembly's wish that vendors move out of the streets into the markets for us to realize the "Keep the City Clean" objective.
- It was also the wish of the Government that the Minister met the vendors in person, the fax added. But in a further scandal, Mayor Chikakwiya has been accused of claiming an allowance for the Mangochi trip, which he did not even go on. He said: "I received an allowance of K10,000 for the trip but I couldn't go because I had to attend the burial of MP Katsanga on the Wednesday."
When asked why he hadn't yet repaid the allowance and whether he intended to do so, he said: "That is an internal matter. I don't claim for myself. I don't claim for anything." He also denied suggestions that he had claimed allowances for other trips.
- If I fail to go, it means I'm involved in other matters, he said angrily before slamming the phone down on this reporter. Allegations that Chikakwiya claimed K38,500 for a two-day trip to Malawi's capital, Lilongwe, in May this year, which he did not go on, were denied by the Mayor.
But in a fax to 'The Chronicle', although he provided information about other trips, he failed to provide any evidence to show he had repaid this allowance. Chief Executive of the Assembly Sophie Kalimba was unavailable to comment on the allegations.
Malawi's new President, Mr Mutharika, is on record as saying that he will not tolerate corruption "at any level" and will take action against anyone found abusing public office. The last UDF government has been accused of misusing public resources and of mismanagement; a situation that the new President says has to stop.
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