UNEXPLAINED procurement procedures at Zambia’s Ministry of Health suggest a deeply engrained governance shortfall with mounting evidence of grand corruption at the core of the problem.
With the health ministry accounting for the highest share of Zambia’s national budgetary allocation (16% of the 2020 national budget), the upsurge of procurement scandals and unexplained cases of missing health ministry funds has put the spotlight on the ministry’s lack of financial accountability.
The latest in this worrying trend relates to revelations by Ministry of Health
Permanent Secretary Mulalelo Kakulubelwa admitting before the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that the Ministry had recommended the termination of contracts for two companies for failing to deliver health kits to the Ministry.
The two companies in question are Pharmanova Zambia Limited and Artemis Pharmaceutical Zambia Limited. At issue is US$18 million worth of health kits contracted from the two firms as part of contracts in November and December 2019 for the supply and delivery of 50,000 health centre kits.
However, the two firms failed to deliver, leading to the cancellation of their contracts and the demand by the PAC for the Ministry to recover the US$18 million.
This development follows mounting evidence that fraud and criminal investigations involving an intricate matrix of Ministry of Health and top-ranking police officers lies at the heart of efforts aimed at frustrating the conclusion of cases of fraud and theft related to Ministry of Health medical supply procurement.
Police are for instance tight-lipped regarding the curious case in which some senior officers were arrested in connection with the theft of medical products from Medical Stores Limited (MSL), a few months after the Zambian government was forced to pay back over US$1 million worth of drugs to the Global Fund. The Fund campaigns worldwide and funds a global initiative for the eradication of HIV & Aids, tuberculosis and malaria.
Among several high-ranking police officers arrested for the theft of medicines and medical supplies at MSL is Kennedy Chikwanda, a hospital administrator at Lusaka’s Sikanze police camp. Chikwanda holds the police rank of Assistant Commissioner. MSL is a Ministry of Health medical supply storage and distribution facility.
Others arrested are Chief Inspector Potfer Phiri and his driver, Inspector Sydney Kalonga, together with two civilian drivers.
Asked what action has been taken against the officers involved in the alleged theft, Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman, Nephas Chifuta referred the matter to the police.
“Well, the ministry may not be in a position to comment on that,” he said. “The appropriate office is the PRO (public relations office) for the police.”
But police have not responded to MakanDay’s query and have ignored phone calls and text messages sent to police spokeswoman Esther Katongo.
Police have plenty more questions to answer, including suspected meddling in the ongoing MSL investigations which started in 2017 in which two key officers handling the matter were mysteriously transferred from Lusaka.
A source told MakanDay that Home Affairs Permanent Secretary, Masiye Banda has placed the transfers on halt after he was briefed about the maneuvers within the police, but the two officers have not reported back for work.
Another source familiar with the multi-million US dollar heist has revealed to MakanDay that the recent theft in which officers are alleged to be involved is not an isolated one. It is understood to be connected to the theft initially discovered in 2016 and resulted into an inconclusive investigation which police have been handling since 2017.
Simultaneously, police are already handling two separate but related cases: one where two Congolese are in court for the October 2017 theft and the second involving 13 MSL employees on suspension awaiting the conclusion of investigations in connection with the same theft.
In MakanDay’s August 2020 story, it was reported that the web of theft involving medicines at MSL was much wider than initially projected as it includes insiders, businessmen and the police who either aided and abetted the theft, or have been shielding the alleged suspects. That has come to pass with the arrest of the three senior police officers and a Congolese businessman who is said to have been the buyer of the medicines and medical supplies.
The recent arrest of police officers in November was the second within the same month. The first was at the military-run Maina Soko Hospital in Lusaka, where some workers there were providing drugs and medical supplies to some businesspeople before the same drugs were sold back to government.
In the second, alert MSL officers detected boxes of surgical gloves supplied by Honey Bee, a private supplier engaged by government in 2019.
“The team at the receiving (warehouse) detected that the surgical gloves had the bar code for Medical Stores, so they asked (the supplier) where he got them,” one of the sources explained. “He said in town…, so we started with investigations and it ended up with two people at Maina Soko.”
A highly placed source at MSL told MakanDay that the buyer of the stolen supplies from both the police and Maina Soko incidents was a Congolese businessman who owns a house in the plush National Housing Authority (NHA) housing complex off Kasangula road in Lusaka’s Chipata township.
Commenting on the recent crimes, an MSL informant said: “You know the design is to sort of use government camouflage to commit crimes.”
Another informant revealed that in the incident in which the police are involved, supplies from MSL meant for Sikanze hospital had been diverted to the home of one of the officers before being further moved to the Congolese businessman.
“A team of police officers raided one of the (police) officers’ premises in Zanimuone where there were about 61 items that were investigated, of which about 50% where all property belonging to GRZ (government of the republic of Zambia),” the source explained.
Another informant said the police had all this intelligence information more than two years ago, but nothing was done to stop it.
All this is happening at the time that Zambian hospitals are facing critical shortages of essential drugs and medical supplies, despite repeated denials from government officials.
Some hospitals have reported shortages of essential drugs and medical supplies such as examination gloves, thereby placing the lives of medical officers at risk of contracting diseases as they examine patients with bare hands.
According to a survey conducted by MakanDay Media Centre, shortages of essential drugs were partly caused by a number of factors, including lack of funds and an unexplained and controversial government shift in procurement.
Honey Bee, an unknown supplier is not a stranger to controversy. It won an overpriced tender worth US$17.8 million last year to supply 22,500 health centre kits from which some of the medicines failed quality tests.
For earlier thefts from as far back as 2016, the Zambian government paid back over 1 million US dollars to the Belinda and Bill Gates-backed Global Fund. The medicines and medical supplies worth US$1.06 million were stolen over a two-year period.
In November this year, Kathryn Hodson, head of investigations in the office of the inspector general at the Global Fund told MakanDay that “payment of recoveries was received by the Global Fund” in response to the August emailed query.