ENERGY Minister Peter Kapala has been accused of sanctioning illegal and unilateral decisions made by Energy Regulation Board (ERB) board chairperson Monde Kabwela.

Some ERB officials who spoke on conditions of anonymity said Kapala has given instructions to the board that all his directives, verbal or written, issued through Kabwela must be adhered to without question, contrary to the guidance given by President Hakainde Hichilema during the induction of ministers.

When contacted, Kapala admitted issuing the directive, but said he expected the board members to call him if they were in doubt about his instructions.

He said he was currently trying to understand what led to an acrimonious situation at ERB between Kabwela and fellow board members, stressing that there was nothing wrong with him guiding board members to adhere to all his directives, whether verbal or written.

An investigation into the internal wrangles that led to the resignations of several ERB board members has revealed that Kabwela made several questionable and unilateral decisions which ultimately frustrated her board members, forcing them to resign.

According to News Diggers findings, ERB board members, led by board vice chairperson Israel Phiri, had resisted Kabwela’s verbal directive that ERB Director General Langiwe Lungu be put on forced leave pending investigations without written instructions from the Minister, whom she said had given this instruction.

“The Chairperson had called for an emergency board meeting on 27th September, 2021 to consider a verbal instruction from the Minister to put the DG and two other officials, the Board Secretary and Director Finance, on leave with immediate effect. But the board members felt it was important for the meeting to be furnished with reasons as to why the three employees were being sent on leave without any written instruction from the Minister. The Board members were told by the Board Chairperson that it did not matter how the Board members felt or considered the instruction, but action was to be taken by end of that meeting. Ms Kabwela actually told them that they would not get any sitting allowances if they did not comply with the Minister’s verbal instruction to send these officials on forced leave,” the source said.

“The Board Chairperson insisted that no matter what any member thought, a letter would be written supporting the request by the Minister since this was a new government and it was important to support the government of the day. The other board members did not agree and they put this in writing after that meeting ended.”

The following day, however, Kabwela wrote a letter informing Lungu that she had been placed on forced leave with immediate effect.

“Pursuant to Section 48 of the employment code Act, the Board hereby places you on forced leave with immediate effect until further notice. The board will inform you of further recourse once all matters brought to the board’s attention have been looked into. During this period of your leave, you will stay away from the office,” Kabwela wrote, on September 28.

After Lungu threatened to take legal action against the board chairperson, Kapala then put in a written instruction for the board members to support the decision that had been implemented by Kabwela.

“I request all board members to support and comply with the decision to send the Director General on leave with immediate effect until further notice to facilitate any necessary investigations that may need to be undertaken. Your cooperation in the matter will be appreciated,” Kapala wrote.

Preceding the controversial suspension of the director general, the board had raised questions against Kabwela’s unilateral decisions, among them, her interference in management’s decision to deny Spectra Oil a permit to construct a filling station in Long Acres area.

In a letter addressed to the Spectra Oil chief financial officer and dated September 6, Kabwela urged the ERB management to clarify why the license was denied.

“I have received correspondence from Spectra Oil Limited regarding the above subject matter of which a copy is herewith attached. Kindly, as a matter of urgency, clarify these issues raised by the licensee, in order for me to respond effectively to their concerns. Going forwards, before we advise any licensee to take legal action, matters of this nature should be brought to the attention of the board through the respective committees,” wrote Kabwela.

Kabwela also wrote to Green Economy and Environment Ministry permanent secretary John Msimuko to ‘revoke’ his appointment on the board, even though she was not the appointing authority.

“On behalf of the Board of Directors and Management of the Energy Regulatory Board, we congratulate you on your new appointment as Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Green Economy and Environment… As per the provisions of the Energy Regulatory Board, your appointment means you have ceased to be a member of the board as you are now a controlling officer in the new ministry. We shall be guided by the new minister with regard to the new appointment to fill your position and the way forward,” read the letter in part, which was dated September 17.

Following Kabwela’s letter to the Permanent Secretary, board members requested to meet minister Kapala in order to discuss what had been obtaining at the authority, but according to sources, he did not give them a warm reception.

“The Minister appeared before the Board Members in a manner that was not accommodating and the first thing he did was to furiously chase Musimuko, who was illegally fired by the Chairperson upon his appointment as Permanent Secretary. The environment was extremely hostile and intimidating. The Minister’s preamble was that he knew a lot about the Board Members present in that meeting. He said while they were excellent in their respective professions, they made him angry. The Minister further reminded the Board Members that he could easily have dissolved the Board. But the Board Members reminded the Honorable Minister that the President of the Republic of Zambia, Mr Hakainde Hichilema had directed that all instructions in order to be acted upon ought to be in writing. The Minister specifically accused the Board of having failed to perform certain functions such as failing to investigate undisclosed issues and having allowed a private company to run the government–procured fuel tankers thereby risking public resources,” the source explained.

“The Board Members guided the Minister that the way oil marketing companies and other companies in the energy sector operate and manage their affairs, including, contracts with any other companies or parties is a non-ERB Board function. He was told that the only role that the ERB played in relation to the government procured fuel tankers was to issue licenses upon fulfilling all the conditions prescribed and required for the grant of licenses.”

After the resignation of the board members, Kabwela appointed Fred Hang’andu to act as Director General, asking him to await “further communication from the board”.

In an interview, Kapala said he expected board members to heed to his instructions, whether verbal or written.

“What came to my attention was that the board and the chair were not together. The board members would call for a meeting, form a quorum without the chair only for the chair to find out that there were some minutes that were submitted. So those fights started a long time ago. I understand that when the chair asked for the DG’s file, they refused because the chair wanted to find out how much she is paid, her contract status, the board refused to comply with that so the fight could have been on for quite some time. I am yet to get the full report from the chair, I am hoping that I can get that tomorrow,” Kapala said.

As to them asking me to put the instruction in writing, I did, because the DG had threatened to sue the chair that she has no right to put her on leave because the board did not agree and it was a one person decision. So that is why she kept it, that we could stop the fighting and find a lasting solution, just to allow us to get to the bottom of all these things happening at ERB.

Asked whether it was true that he had insisted that all his instructions, whether verbal or written should be adhered to, Kapala replied in the affirmative.

“Yes, because you see, if the board wanted to reconfirm my instruction, they could have called me, one of them, even the vice chair could have called me rather than just refuse that ‘no, tell the minister to put it in writing’. You get me? I am a phone call away, they could have confirmed right there and then and then we could have resolved it,” he said.

Asked how this position fitted into President Hakainde Hichilema’s directive that all instructions from his ministers should be in writing, Kapala said: “Yes, you see, that is why I am telling you that if they had bothered to call, you can call and then I would have confirmed and they would have said ‘okay sir, now put it in writing’, I was going to do it.”

Asked if he was aware of some of the unilateral decisions which the board chairperson had made such as writing to Spectra over a license to built a filling state in Longacres, Kapala said: “No, maybe you can shade some light. You see, that is why I wanted to get all the minutes so that I can follow the case. That is why I haven’t dissolved the board because I don’t want to rush it. You know, even if those board members have resigned, they have given a one month notice so within this month, I should be able to get to the bottom of the problem. If the board members have got any evidence that the chair was doing things behind them, I would like to see that in writing, I don’t have that information.”

Asked whether the board members didn’t bring these issues to his attention before they resigned, Kapala said only Msimuko went to see him to hand him his resignation letter.

Asked whether anyone would be in order to assume that he was siding with the board chair, Kapala replied in the negative.

“No, no, no. Otherwise, I could have said let’s fire the other board members and keep the chair. But looking at what has happened, I don’t think anybody would like to keep such a board,” said Kapala.

Meanwhile, when contacted, Kabwela said she did not want to make any comment on the matter.

“I think I will be very honest with you. It is not a matter I would like to comment on right now. If the minister has given a comment, we leave it at that. Because the end result is that we are going to be calling each other names or we are going to be accusing each other and I think that is not a professional way of doing things so I am not going to comment especially that I am dealing with you from News Diggers. There is an appropriate way of dealing with matters which I think is known to myself and the rest of the board members. And also, just correct the record that it is not everybody that has resigned, that is why you are talking to me because I am still there and there are other people that are still there,” said Kabwela.

Asked whether it was true that in the last election, she had attempted to get ERB to send K250,000 to the PF as support for campaigns, Kabwela said, “I am not going to comment on any matter. If anyone has any evidence to that effect, let them give it to you and then you bring it to me. Then we can take it up with appropriate authorities.”