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CAUSE TO SALIVATE

In the land of sticky fingers, there's nothing far-fetched about likely misuse of Covid funds

They just can't keep their hands off goodies that don't belong to them and use the suffering of others to benefit themselves

In Summary

•Wandayi believes drawing from the country's history, it was far from impossible for officials to plunder the public coffers.

•Wandayi on the government to develop a broad-based national marshal plan to pre-empt the post-coronavirus times and guide in recovering the economy.

Public Accounts Committee chairman Opiyo Wandayi. He wants the claims of pilferage and misuse of COVID-19 response funds taken seriously and probed /JACK OWUOR
Public Accounts Committee chairman Opiyo Wandayi. He wants the claims of pilferage and misuse of COVID-19 response funds taken seriously and probed /JACK OWUOR

Claims that public officials and bureaucrats handling the coronavirus response funds are misusing and pillaging the billions - and letting people die - are not far-fetched and should not be dismissed, experts say.

After all, in the amoral land of sticky fingers, aid for widows and orphans is stolen, pension funds are gutted, money to build schools and preschools disappears. In general, money meant for the good of the people is often pilfered if it isn't been nailed down.

Why should funds to save lives during the coronavirus pandemic - and those who handle them- be any different?

 
 
 
 

Activists and Ugunja MP Opiyo Wandanyi, who is also the National Assembly's Public Accounts Committee chairman smell a rat. They say claims of misappropriation should not be dismissed. They are not far-fetched.

Noting Kenya's history is replete with pious rogues in expensive three-piece suits who take advantage of crises to line their own pocket, Wandanyi said the public should be ever-vigilant and ask prodding, embarrassing questions. And be relentlessly sceptical.  

 “It’s not far-fetched that government bureaucrats and accounting officers are inclined to take advantage of crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic to misuse public funds,” he told the Star in an interview.

Never think, "Oh no, they wouldn't." Crises always create opportunities.

In recent weeks, multiple media reports have alleged misuse of the billions allocated to the Covid-19 response team.

For example, a breakdown of how the Ministry of Health has spent Sh1.3 billion showed that among other things, it spent Sh42 million to lease 15 ambulances at Sh2.8 million each. Sh4 million was spent on tea and snacks for response teams.

Sh2 million reportedly was spent on airtime out of Sh6 million allocated.

 
 

Records indicate that these expenditures are from the Sh1 billion donated by the World Bank to set up isolation facilities and laboratories, buy testing equipment, medicine and  Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs), among other things.

Further, although the approved budget for the ministry was Sh976.8 million, the documents seen by the Star showed the ministry had so far spent Sh1.3 billion since the outbreak in mid-March. 

The reports drew a ferocious public backlash. President Uhuru Kenyatta and Health CS Mutahi Kagwe rebutted the reports as misinformation.

Kagwe claimed corrupt cartels at Afya House were giving the information to the public to derail his reform drive at the ministry. 

In fact, Health PS Susan Mochache later claimed that no single World Bank penny had been spent. 

But despite the denial by the government, the NYS I scandal took a similar path, with government operatives denying any theft, but later admitting, though disputing figures. 

Documents from the Ministry of Devolution showed it procured 18 male and female condom dispensers at a cost of Sh450,000, translating to Sh 25,000 each. The normal prices of a condom dispenser averagely cost Sh8,900 at the time. It also bought 20 pens at Sh 174,000, meaning each pen cost the taxpayer Sh8,700. The normal pen price is Sh15 – Sh20.

Wandayi told the Star that arising from this history, the reports of unconscionable misuse of Covid-19 funds could not entirely be unfounded. He said it's possible officials were taking advantage of the country's apprehension about the virus "to circumvent the law, particularly the Public Finance Management Act and the Public Procurement and Asset Disposal Act, in the procurement and expenditure process.”

He said his committee was following the happenings with keen interest and said the law will ultimately catch up with the thieves. 

“We have been methodical and meticulous in interrogating the public accounts and how public funds are used. How Covid-19 funds are being used is no exception. Let those who misuse the funds remember that the law has a very unfading and sharp memory,” he added.

“Every shilling spent on the fight against the pandemic must be accounted for. Anything less must call for sanctions against those involved, however long it will take."

Opaque team, strategy

The alleged misuse of the funds is a little more personal for Jerotich Seii who has been crowd-funding to support families in Nairobi and beyond who are economically devastated by the virus and lack of work.

She told the Star, “..as long as we don't have an Auditor General in-situ, we will never know the extent of looting because cover-ups are the order of the day. It looks as though Parliament just doesn't have the will or the guts to push all the way," the social justice activist said.

Seii said the Covid-19 response committee and board have been operating opaquely.

"Besides a snazzy website and 'impressive' committee members, I cannot tell what they have done with the Sh2.7 billion and 10 tons of in-kind contributions meant to be distributed in Mukuru kwa Njenga 10 days ago. As of today, I do not know whether it has happened."

The activist wants the response teams to be truly multi-disciplinary for a whole rounded response that resonates with the challenges that people struggle with daily.

For example, she said, if the teams had an expert in cross-border migration health management during emergencies, “the government would have avoided the foolish confrontations that ensued with Tanzanian and the 40km long queue on the Tanzanian side.”

Further, she explained, with a genuinely multi-disciplinary team in place, there can be a balance between the biomedical response and the socioeconomic factors on the ground. These enable maximum cooperation from citizens.

International Center for Policy and Conflict executive director Ndung’u Wainaina told the Star Kenya needs an independent central audit mechanism at the Treasury to account for all Covid-19 funds to ensure transparency, accountability and probity.

Such an account could be managed jointly by the National Treasury, the Central Bank of Kenya and the Council of Governors, with the office of Auditor General given full access. A daily Treasury statement would be published, accounting for all funds, outlining all inflows and their source and all outflows to properly identified government ministries, departments or agencies.

Wainaina also called for the government to publish all names of companies and individuals contracted to provide any Covid-19 goods and services, details such as contracts, amounts paid and how the firms or people were selected.

Emergencies of varied nature are the new norm, Wainaina said,  reiterating Wandayi that the “mitigation efforts are vulnerable to corruption.

“Sadly, the following influx of funds, goods and services are particularly vulnerable to corruption and have a high chance of being subject to waste and mismanagement,” he said.

In fact, to ensure further accountability, Ndung’u said the Covid-19 funds should not be disbursed any further without appropriation by the National Parliament.

“The National Treasury must always liaise with the Parliament to pass a supplementary budget or re-prioritise budgetary allocation for the utilisation of the funds based on the estimated total collection for the year.

It must detail the needs submitted by the affected MDAs together with estimated costs, as the basis for the allocation of funds, to enable post expenditure reporting and audit,” he added.