Ministerial statement on 51 houses raises more questions

Transparency International Zambia has followed with keen interest the investigations into the ownership of initially 48 and now 51 houses in Chalala area. Following the Presidential directive to the Minister of Home Affairs and all relevant investigative agencies to ensure that this matter is fully investigated and brought to its logical conclusion, we were expectant that the ministerial statement would bring to light new information on the ownership of the said properties. Unfortunately the ministerial statements raises more questions than answers. We wish to highlight the following points and further make some recommendations.

1. On 18 July 2019, the Anti Corruption Commission in a press statement, responded to media stories which were circulating on social media platforms that the ACC had seized 56 flats /apartments which were suspected to be from proceeds of crime. In its statement, ACC clarified that it had indeed seized properties but only 48 and not 56. Further, ACC informed the nation that it had been investigating an official from the Ministry of Finance on allegations of possession of property reasonably suspected to be from proceeds of crime.

2. On 28 July 2019, the Acting Director General of the ACC in a wide ranging interview on ZNBC TV, confirmed that it was aware of an official from the Ministry of Finance as a possible owner of the property but that in the course of their investigation, it was clear that the 48 flats were not in his name. Further, she revealed that the ACC had followed on a number of leads of people and institutions that they thought had anything to do with the ownership of the properties but this did not yield any results. The Acting Director General indicated that the ACC put up a notice in the government gazette in August 2018, but no one can forward to claim the properties, while the person in whose name the properties were registered, equally disowned them. This, according to the ACC was the basis for their decision to seize and forfeit these properties to the state and hence close the case.

3. Hon Kampyongo in his statement indicated that there are now three persons suspected to be the owners of the houses, however, the emphasis of the case is now concealment of properties believed to be proceeds of crime. The Minister confirmed what was already mentioned by the ACC in its earlier statement of a Ministry of Finance official being involved in this matter.

4. Ideally the Ministerial statement should have brought closure to this matter and we should now all focus on the subsequent court processes, but there is still a lot of uneasiness among the public on this matter. The ministerial statement has done little to assure people that we are reaching a logical conclusion on this matter as directed by President Lungu. For instance, the conduct of the investigations come up for special scrutiny. The ACC publicly indicated that having done a professional job of investigating this matter for a period of time, stretching to before August 2018, and having talked to various people and institutions, they had failed to identify the owner of the said property. However, in about two months after the Presidential directive, the ACC working with DEC and Zambia Police have now “identified the owner”- who from our perspective, could essentially be the same person already on the radar of the ACC. Why did ACC not work with DEC and ZP in the first place when this matter was raised? This could be the same person that ACC indicated would be difficult to prosecute since there was no evidence linking him to the said properties.

The question that the Minster should have addressed is what new information has now been found to link the suspect to the property? How certain is the investigation team that the suspected beneficial owner of the properties in question has been identified? What assurances can be given to the public that the ACC, which had failed to identify the owner of the properties, has now done a good job and this is a case that could successfully be prosecuted in the courts of law? These are still the lingering concerns of many even after the Ministerial statement in the National Assembly. There is an erosion of public trust in the investigation agencies insofar as this case is concerned and we can only hope that this conclusion on this matter has not been arrived at to merely satisfy President Lungu who directed that the case be pursued further.

5. It was our expectation that the Minister of Home Affairs in his statement would highlight measures Government is taking to investigate all other possible cases of a similar nature. We do not believe that this case of concealment of property believed to be from proceeds of crime, is an isolated one. There is every likelihood that there are many other civil and public servants in a similar predicament who have done or are now doing everything possible to conceal their identity of properties. We expected to learn from the Minister, the steps proposed to deal with the potential systemic drivers for this kind of action. We expected to hear from the Minister how whistleblowers who may have information on this type of concealment of properties suspected to be from proceeds of crime, will be protected. We were hopeful that the Minister would address the public concerns on how the governance system has broken down to a point where civil and public servants can easily acquire properties which are not commensurate with their known present and past income streams, and successfully conceal it from authorities. How many other civil servants own houses, farms, warehouses, trucks etc, which were bought from proceeds of crime? Yes, Government may not have an answer now, but what else is government doing to seal these loopholes? Do we expect to see urgent attention paid to the Financial Intelligence Centre report which highlights similar concerns of concealment of ownership of 49 houses which could been from money laundering activities? The Minister had an opportunity to address the nation on the measures to be taken to strengthen the institutional and financial capacity of ACC so that it can discharge its functions independently without waiting for presidential directives.

6. We wish to urge government to urgently present to the National Assembly, a Bill to operationalise Article 263 of the constitution which should make it mandatory for a public officer – particularly those in sensitive positions like Finance and Procurement, before assuming or leaving office, to make a declaration of their assets and liabilities. Additionally, we need to totally overhaul the declaration of assets, incomes and liabilities by public officers as well as public leaders including the President, Vice President, Ministers, Permanent Secretaries and Directors include CEOs of State Owned Enterprises. The present system is simply too academic and serves no significant value. We need a robust system with proper verification of the declarations made by qualified Auditors. We urge that the President be subjected to an annual declaration like all others. Lifestyle audits should be an inherent part of this accountability system. The Parliamentary and Ministerial Code of Conduct Act should be reformed accordingly and address the weak declaration of conflict of interest. On the 51 houses, it is clear that we are far from confirming who the real beneficial owners are.

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