ECONOMIC GOVERNANCE WATCH 6/2022
[15th June 2022]
Government Expenditure on COVID-19 : Was there Looting?
Zimbabwe recorded its first death from Covid-19 in March 2020 and tragically many more were recorded in the months and years that followed. The country was not ready for the pandemic and had no disaster management plan in place; hence many decisions were made on an ad hoc basis and unscrupulous persons saw an opportunity to enrich themselves from government funding and from the foreign and local donations that were hastily provided to meet the emergency.
In May last year, following negative reports of corruption in tender processes and use of resources, the Auditor-General sent Parliament a special report on the financial management and utilisation of public funds in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. The report can be accessed on the Veritas website [link]. Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee [PAC] examined the report and, after taking evidence from officials of the Ministries most involved – the Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare and the Ministry of Local Government and Public Works – produced its own report on the Auditor-General’s findings, adding its own observations to those of the Auditor-General and its recommendations about what should be done. The Committee’s report was tabled in the National Assembly on the 10th May 2022 and is on the Veritas website [link].
In this bulletin we shall look at the Auditor-General’s main findings and the PAC’s observations and recommendations on them.
The Auditor-General’s Report
The audit was conducted over six provinces, namely Mashonaland West, Mashonaland Central, Manicaland, Masvingo, Midlands and Matabeleland South, and covered the period from April 2020 when the pandemic was gaining strength in Zimbabwe until the 20th December 2020. The Auditor-General found that there were control weaknesses relating to the ordering, delivery, invoicing and payment for goods and services as a result of which some beneficiaries, including government officials, received relief disbursements to which they were not entitled, some intended beneficiaries did not receive their entitlements, and some necessary projects were never completed. Some specific findings were:
Disbursement of relief funds
The Auditor-General’s report: Allowances amounting to Z$89 022 102 were paid out, targeted at small and medium enterprises that were forced to close because of the pandemic, food insecure households and other vulnerable people. Payments were processed by the Ministry of Public Service through the Net One mobile money platform. The Ministry could not confirm that the allowances had reached all the intended beneficiaries as:
- The identification and assessment of beneficiaries were not properly co-ordinated, resulting in duplicated payments and payments to persons with fictitious ID numbers, suspicious names and incorrect addresses. In Buhera, for example, all the beneficiaries, incredibly, were said to be in the bread-making business.
- There was no follow-up to verify the existence of beneficiaries and to ascertain whether allowances had reached them.
- No reconciliations were done with Net One to confirm that all payments reached the intended beneficiaries.
The PAC’s observations and recommendations:
- The distribution mechanism for COVID-19 allowances was in a shambles leaving the process open to abuse.
- The Auditor-General should, within 180 days after the report was presented in Parliament (the 10th May), conduct a forensic audit to establish cases of fraud and theft.
- The Ministry of Public Service should update its database with Net One so that it could be used for disbursements in future.
- The Police and the Zimbabwe Anti-Corruption Commission [ZACC] should, within 180 days, institute investigations into possible duplicate payments with a view to prosecuting those guilty of wrongdoing.
- As to the uncollected allowances, the Ministry of Public Service should communicate with the intended beneficiaries and ensure that their allowances were collected within 90 days.
Payment of allowances to Government employees
The Auditor-General’s report: Seven Ministries and government agencies paid unauthorised allowances totalling Z$2 654 089 and airtime worth Z$22 165 to staff members at quarantine centres who reported for duty during the national lockdown.
The PAC’s observations and recommendations: The Ministries should within 60 days seek retrospective approval for the payments from the accounting officers and, if approval was not forthcoming, recover the payments from the staff members concerned.
Urban food assistance
The Auditor-General’s report: A total of Z$3 999 300 in food assistance was given to urban beneficiaries in Midlands between April and August 2020. There was no evidence that the beneficiaries had been assessed for eligibility, contrary to the Social Welfare Assistance Act.
The PAC’s observations and recommendations: Within 180 days the Ministry of Public Service should conduct a review of their eligibility, and keep records of the review.
Management of quarantine centres
The Auditor-General’s report:
- Schools and other premises were used as quarantine centres without clear agreements between the Ministry of Public Service and the owners of the premises concerned. This was a serious irregularity because the Ministry paid fees to the owners for the use of their premises and it was difficult to confirm whether the payments were authentic.
- Some quarantine centres were insecure and many inmates were able to abscond.
- Purchases of food and other supplies for inmates were not done procedurally and payments were not reconciled with goods and services actually received by the centres. Variances were found between payments recorded and actual stocks found at the centres, giving rise to a reasonable suspicion of theft.
- Records were not kept of donations given to the centres.
- There was inadequate documentation of bus fares paid to discharged inmates, and in many instances no evidence that the recipients had received their fares.
The PAC’s observations and recommendations:
- In future the Ministry should always sign contracts or at least MOUs with owners of premises used for quarantine centres.
- The Police and ZACC should investigate payments made for use of the premises, since there was a suspicion that the money could have been stolen.
- The insecurity of the centres was partly caused by negligence and posed a great risk of spreading Covid.
- The Auditor-General should conduct a forensic audit on unaccounted-for donations.
- The variances between supplies paid for and supplies found in place were suspicious; the Ministry should investigate them and report to the PAC within 60 days.
- The Police should within 180 days investigate what happened to more than Z$500 000 in cash received by various centres and not accounted for.
- The Ministry should investigate the payment or non-payment of bus fares and within 180 days report its findings and remedial action to the Auditor-General and the PAC.
The Auditor-General’s report: As at December 2020 Z$180 million had been disbursed for the refurbishment of isolation centres. Much of the work had not been done at the time of the Auditor-General’s survey: out of 16 centres in Masvingo, Manicaland and Midlands Provinces, seven (nearly half) were still non-functional.
The PAC’s observations and recommendations: There was serious mismanagement of funds, and the responsible Ministry should institute disciplinary action within 60 days against officers who had been negligent.
Misuse or theft of fuel
The Auditor-General’s report: Many centres did not keep fuel registers so fuel could not be properly accounted for and could have been used for personal use. For example, in Manicaland 2 154 litres of fuel were said to have been used for Covid response but there was no supporting evidence for the use of 1 954 litres of it. In Mashonaland Central the provincial social welfare office issued coupons for 780 litres of fuel without supporting fuel requisitions.
The PAC’s observations and recommendations: The PAC requested the Ministry to provide it with a list of the persons to whom fuel was issued and the purpose of the issue. The Ministry failed to comply with the request, and the failure was construed as an attempt to conceal theft of fuel. The police and ZACC should investigate the matter within 180 days.
Violation of tender procedures
The Auditor-General’s report: Ministries did not develop procurement plans for obtaining goods for quarantine centres, as required by the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Act. Tender procedures were not followed in the procurement of goods and services worth Z$7 256 897. Procurement contracts were not signed with service providers and contracted work was not properly managed. These anomalies resulted in excess payments and loss of transparency.
The PAC’s observations and recommendations: The Ministry should prepare procurement plans retrospectively for all purchases within 60 days.
The Auditor-General’s audit and the PAC’s subsequent investigations show that in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, government officials breached the Public Finance Management Act, the Social Welfare Assistance Act and the Public Procurement and Disposal of Public Assets Act. Some officials probably committed theft. While every allowance must be made for the seriousness of the emergency they faced, and the need for rapid action to combat it, the extent to which officials disregarded the law was inexcusable. Only strict enforcement of the laws and severe censure and punishment of the officials who abused their positions can help restore the public’s faith in our government’s ability to meet future challenges effectively and honestly.