By Makanday Media Centre
THE web of theft involving medicines worth over a million dollars at Medical Stores Limited (MSL) was far wider than initially projected. It appears to include insiders, businessmen and the police who either aided the theft or have been shielding the suspects, Makanday has established.
Police inspector general Kakoma Kanganja, asked by Makanday why the matter has stalled, elected to remain mute.
The drugs, paid for by the Bill Gates-backed Global Fund to fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, were meant to flow from Medical Stores to Zambia’s poor, the main victims of HIV/Aids.
As a result of this theft, Zambian taxpayers will shoulder the heavy burden of refunding the Global Fund the full cost of the stolen drugs.
The Global Fund gave a terse response to the second query sent to the office of the investigator general asking for more time. “We will assess the information you have kindly provided and we will do our best to update you within a month as to the outcome of our initial review”.
But government has neither responded nor acknowledged receipt of the query sent to the Ministry of Health asking how much has been paid back so far.
The police are handling two separate but related cases: one where the two Congolese are in court and another where 13 employees of MSL are on suspension awaiting conclusion of investigations.
Makanday has established that by 2016, the Ministry of Health was already ringing changes at Medical Stores. It was after noticing that 10% of the estimated 300 employees were in one way or another involved in theft of medicines and medical supplies.
According to a well-placed source with direct knowledge, changes were made to staff in key departments of logistics, inventory and security to stop the theft and wastage of medicine.
In October 2016, just few days after the changes, packs of coartem – the malaria drug, were discovered to have been stolen from the main warehouse in Lusaka. The theft, which happened on a Friday, was only discovered on Monday, three days later.
The employees involved in the organised crime used several methods, including alteration of medical stocks and faking records, in some cases, claiming the drugs were about to expire, when in fact not.
The scope of the illegal activities and dirty tricks at MSL was large. Makanday has discovered that some employees were moving expired drugs to outside contacts who would change the labels and repackage the medicine before being sold on the market and abroad.
Makanday has further established that one of the employees who engineered the foiled daylight robbery in August 2018 at one of the offsite warehouses operated by MSL in Lusaka’s Chinika industrial area had contacts with two Congolese nationals.
A team of alert police reservists assembled by MSL, shot and wounded one of the two gun-wielding Congolese at the scene, while the other managed to escape but was cornered and arrested at a police checkpoint in Lusaka’s Six Miles area a few weeks later.
However, disturbing questions have been raised. Why for instance, where police reservists involved to gun down and wound the Congolese gunman at the Chinika warehouse? Secondly, was there an attempted cover up by police to shield their police accomplices to the crime?
“We had to work with the reservists because we suspected the police had been infiltrated by one of the masterminds of the theft within MSL,” the MSL source told Makanday.
The detention of the Congolese led to the arrest of three Zambian employees of MSL in connection with the theft, but they were later acquitted by the Lusaka magistrate court.
The two Congolese are still in detention and the case is still ongoing, albeit at a snail’s pace.
As reported in Makanday’s initial first story on the case, two of the MSL employees later committed suicide in mysterious circumstances. The third, a driver only identified as Simumba, has returned to work.
An insider at MSL expressed frustration with the slow pace of the investigation, despite medical stores providing a vehicle for the police to use and weekly fuel allocation to speed up the process.
What do we know about the matrix of theft?
Makanday Centre for Investigative Journalism has established that some of the 13 employees on suspension, who include a warehouse manager, two assistant managers (inventory and outbound), two dispatch officers, a forklift driver and a commodity security officer were heavily involved in the web of theft.
One of the suspended employees wondered why, more than a year after their suspension, they have not been to court or their matter concluded.
Reports and our sources indicate that a private warehouse operated by a man identified only as Salim, was the destination of stolen medicine from MSL on their way to international routes, through Kazungula border, an exit point to Zimbabwe and Namibia.
According to the source at MSL, for the medicine to pass undetected, government workers at the border had to have been involved.
An investigation by South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper indicate that the systematic theft of Zambian ARVs goes as far back as 2009, employing a complex network operating in several countries.
The report revealed how in 2009, an HIV-positive man in northern Germany was shocked to find that – although sealed – not every blister of antiretroviral (ARV) medicine he collected from a local pharmacy contained a pill.
Working backwards, German police meticulously tracked down the supply chain – from the pharmacy, they traced the wholesaler and discovered that the source of the ARVs was Zambia.
“What happens with ARVs is that those that have expired or are near expiry are brought back to Medical Stores, and it is these that would find their way to Salim’s warehouse in Lusaka’s Makeni area, and new labels were printed on the contraband ARVs,” one of the sources at MSL explained.
Salim could not be reached for comment as he fled the country soon after the police started investigating the theft at MSL in 2016. Makanday has learnt that the warehouse he rented belonged to the Lebanese manufacturing and real estate company, Lamasat International Investments Limited.