MINISTRY of National Guidance and Religious Affairs permanent secretary Rev Howard Sikwela says the Church Empowerment Fund is not a form of corruption because no one will monitor who the beneficiaries will vote for in the coming election.

Commenting on Archbishop Teleshpore Mpundu’s remarks that the Church Empowerment Fund was a blatant form of corruption, Rev Sikwela said the fund was not a bribe but a method of empowering churches that had been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s far from being corruption, as some people may want to think. It was last year when the church itself asked government to also consider extending the empowerment that was being extended to sections of the community. So, government decided to think fast and that is how the Ministry was tasked to come up with a method on how government was going to help the people. We came up with a scheme. If you check this empowerment, it is not whereby you go, line up the clergy or whoever and start giving out [funds], no! These are people who must be running projects. The idea is to do a revolving fund within the church, so that people are empowered,” Rev Sikwela said.

“This COVID has affected people differently. There are those that have been seriously affected and others, not so much. There are those who can still afford three meals in a day, and those who can hardly afford a meal. So, would government say, ‘this is an election year, we shouldn’t assist, we can only assist when it is an election year’? Far from it. This is part of development, this is part of empowerment. So, where government sees it fit to empower people and take development, we will not await until 2021 is over. We will take that empowerment, we will take that development wherever it is needed.”

And Rev Sikwela said it was impossible to bribe the church for votes because no one would monitor who they would vote for in the coming election.

“Let us be fair to ourselves. We talk about secret ballots, what does that mean? It means you go into that ballot booth alone and do the vote alone, no one will be monitoring you. So, how do I corrupt you? There is no way someone can follow you to say, ‘you have not voted for me’, no… It is purely secret. There are no monitoring cameras, nothing! You will go there alone and do the voting alone. Whether I have given you money or not, you will exercise your right to vote. So, there is no way you can buy people when you are not even there when they are voting. How do you buy them? Let us face reality; people are people regardless of what they do or what they are. As long as they are in need, they are people. We need this assistance differently and at different levels. This one is given this much, the next person is given this much. It does not mean that government is just seated without considering other sectors of the community. Government is seriously looking into all these sectors,” Rev Sikwela said.

“So, when you say government wants to corrupt people, let’s talk about those people when this vaccine comes in- those people who will want to be vaccinated because it is voluntary- government is also buying them? Far from it. What the government is doing is simply empowering people, simply making people make a living. In a church setup, a congregation of 200 or 300 people, you tell me that all those people will belong to one party? Actually, in our messages as we go out, there is nothing like, ‘we are giving you this money, you do this’. You know the church, the church is not something to play with. The moment I go out there and I say, ‘receive this money and do this’, we will be exposed. So, those are thoughts of people who may have their own reasons. I am a Reverend, how do I go to a church and give out money saying, ‘you vote for PF, you vote for this party’? It is impossible!”

Asked what criteria was being used to select the churches that would receive the empowerment fund, Rev Sikwela said churches would be assessed on the projects they intended to undertake.

“The recipients of these funds are the church and those running orphanages. Those running orphanages will receive a grant and use it to activate the operations of that institution. For a church, we will give an example of a church that may have a project; it could be poultry, piggery, or whatever project. That church will give us a project proposal saying, ‘this is how we would want to run this, and the income will come like this’. When we see that the project is viable, people have put in all necessary things that are required, then you are given the money. When they are given the money, we treat it as revolving funds. That money does not come back to government. It will be passed on. They will make more money out of the empowerment, then give it to the next group within the church. The whole idea is to empower people. It is not money where you give the church and the church ends up buying suits or uniforms for the choir or things like that, no!” exclaimed Rev Sikwela.