Seven Civil Society Organisations have described Health Minister Dr Chitalu Chilufya’s response to theft of drugs worth over $1 million as arrogant and insufficient.

Speaking at a joint press briefing at Transparency International Zambia (TIZ) offices in Lusaka Friday, the CSOs asked President Edgar Lungu prove that he was a listening president by firing Dr Chilufya.

The CSO, led by TIZ executive director Wesley Chibamba also threatened to go round the country and collect signatures to petition resident Lungu over the same if their recommendations were not heeded to.

Other CSOs represented were Action Aid Zambia(AAZ), Alliance for Community Action, Centre for Trade and Policy and Development (CTPD), Civil Society for Poverty Reduction (CSPR), Zambia Centre for Social Development (ZCSD), and Consumer Unit and Trust Society (CUTS).

“Transparency International Zambia (TIZ), Action Aid Zambia (AAZ) and other CSOs in Zambia are deepily saddened by the image damaging Global fund’s investigation report which unearthed theft of drugs and other medical products as well as misdirection of over $1.06 million meant to better to better the health system of Zambia. The CSOs are particularly disappointed that the country seems to be going backwards and not forward when it comes to issues of transparency and accountability in the public sector. It is very evident from the report findings that the ministry of health did not do due diligence in terms of safeguarding the medical supplies donated to the Zambian government,” Chibamba said on behalf of the CSOs.

They said it was disheartening that despite so many corruption scandals in the management of public resources in government institutions, no disciplinary action had been taken.

“We take note of the lengthy statement given by the minister of health to the media in response to this matter, but the explanations are not sufficient. It is clear that the Ministry of Health was negligent in its duty to prudently manage resources entrusted to it for the Zambian people. Why must you parade the media and tell them that the president is categorical and clear on the fight against theft when we are receiving scandal after scandal, report after report and nothing is being done? If the ministers are not firing their negligent controlling officers, we urge the president to fire those ministers whose ministries are being cited for mischief in order to assert that he indeed will not tolerate theft,” they said.

“It is amazing that before people have even finished reading one disheartening report about public resource management, another report is out. It is barely a couple of days ago when we received the Auditor General’s report on Local Authorities which revealed that over 14 million kwacha of Constituency Development Funds (CDF) was misapplied. Before that, there was yet another Auditor General’s report on Parastatals which was equally damming. Before that we had the main 2016 Auditor General’s report with yet another gloomy picture for the Zambians. Amidst all that we have the Mukula tree scandal, $42 million fire trucks, $288, 000 ambulance purchase scandal, the $1.2 million [Lusaka-Ndola] dual courage way. What is going on in this country? Where is the so called ‘working government?’ Because as SCOs, we are not seeing any work being done where safeguarding public resources is concerned, other than the rhetorical speeches we are subjected to.”

They also expressed dismay that regardless of having a Health Minister who is a medical practitioner, with two permanent secretaries to give him checks and balances, a lot of irregularities were still present.

“We should mention here that the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) is responsible for safeguarding the assets, investments, reputation and sustainability of the Global Fund by ensuring that it takes the right action to end the epidemics of AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. It is not enough for the government to issue a statement seeking redress by shifting the blame on the supply chain. The misuse of global funds as outlined in the 2018 investigations report by the Global Fund where HIV test kits were stolen is worth a staggering US$416, 379. This is a clear lack of concern among the duty bearers that have been tasked with the responsibility of safeguarding the resources meant for Zambian citizens. This weakness in internal controls in the delivery process of medical supplies is worrying and has for a number of years had a negative impact on service delivery in the health sector especially to the rural parts of the country,” they said.

“Furthermore, we are dismayed that this is happening when we have a Minister of Health who is a medical practitioner and has two permanent secretaries to provide checks and balances. They are further charged with the responsibility of ensuring that all systems and procedures in the ministry of health and other partners such as Medical Stores Limited are functioning well. This situation begs the question, ‘If the Ministry of Health can allow over $4 million worth of expired, what other anomalies has the ministry kept from Zambian people? Mind you, this is the same ministry which had another huge scandal of theft of donor funds a couple of years ago.”

They asked President Edgar Lungu to fire erring ministers and safeguard tax payer’s money.

“Our appeal goes to the president of this country Mr Edgar Chagwa Lungu to take responsibility of what is happening in his government and be more responsible and safe guard tax payer’s money. The easiest short term measure for the president is to fire erring ministers and permanent secretaries before we as a country lose the little that our cooperating partners have in us. Our hope is that the Office of the Inspector General under global fund will work closely with our investigative wings to bring all culprits to book and hope to see massive dismissals and weeding of the bad seed from medical stores limited.”

Meanwhile, Chibamba said there was a lot of impunity under the current government.

“This is not the first time the president has been advised to relieve some of his cabinet ministers and top government officials of their jobs for a number of different reasons, whether they are not performing well or there are other issues. But then what we have see with this government is that there is a lot of impunity. Even when you talk to them they will just look at your as if you haven’t said anything. So we would like this government to demonstrate that they are a listening government. They heed to be taking heed to some of the advice that is given. It is not so much as firing people,” Chibamba said.

“What we need is demonstrable action that the president is serious about the things that he says. If people are losing money in a ministry, the back stops at the ministry. Yes the minister did not lose that money, there were other officers. But what that means is that the minister himself is suppose to discipline those officers. There are procedures in place. So whoever is not disciplining people is suppose to take the wrath. So if we are going to be seeing those things happening year in-year out, there is nothing that is going to stop those erring officers from stealing because they know that nothing will be done to them. So this is why we calling on the president to demonstrate that ‘I am not going to have this in my government, if this is going to happen, you are going to go just like your friends’ and then people will begin to take their work serious.”

And Nalucha Ziba of Action Aid Zambia said there was need to review some clauses in the Anti-Corruption Act to facilitate forfeiting of the properties once they were suspected to be proceeds of crime.

“One of the things that we want to see is the government reviewing some of the laws that are dealing with the issues of corruption because for instance if you look at the Anti-Corruption Act, there are some clauses which were taken out such as that you have to forfeit properties obtained as proceeds of crime. We would want those clauses to come back because what we have observed is that a lot of civil servants are stealing with impunity because they know that ‘even if I go in for three years, I will come out and still find my money and I will still find my property’. So we need to make it very painful and demonstrate stiffer punishment around most of these issues that are occurring in our country,” Ziba said.

“There was also another question on what we would do if the president does not go by our recommendation, we will go round the country and collect signatures and petition to say this is what the people of Zambia have said because you see, this is not the first case we are dealing with. We have had a number of procurement challenges observed in the country and we have cited a lot of irregularities in our country. And what we have observed is that in all of them, the government has paid a deaf ear. The minister’s response does not hold water, if anything, what was exhibited in that response was more arrogance to rubbish it and say there is nothing it’s not an issue. You have an audit and say it’s not an issue?”

Meanwhile, Chennai Mukumba of CUTS wondered why it took long for the Ministry of Health to explain its position on the Global Fund report.

“And one of our concerns is that the minister’s statement was in reaction rather to concerns that we had raised and he indicated that this issue had taken a while ago but I think our concern had been at that, why didn’t the ministry come forward and communicate? because at the end of the day, that is part of accountability and transparency,” said Mukumba.