Public Construction and National Housing minister, Enos Chikowore, should get rid of the rot in his ministry which seems to have become a haven for unscrupulous civil servants out for a quick-buck before the ministry is accorded priority ahead of education and defence.
With thousands of families scrounging for accommodation, and those who have it cashing in, there is no doubt that housing should be given priority but with monies pouring out of the ministry’s coffers like water through a sieve, stringent measures will have to be taken before the ministry is allocated more money as it might end up in some oficials’ pockets instead of being used to provide people with much needed accommodation.
According to the current budget estimates the Ministry of Public Construction and National Housing was allocated the third highest vote with $552 million after Education which was granted $1.8 billion and Defence which got $1.1 billion.
Apparently, it appears that the more money a ministry is allocated the more prone it becomes to being swindled. Education had its scandal of salary payments to phantom teachers involving more than $30 million a few years ago while there are perennial scandals within the Ministry of Defence which no one dares to talk about.
Right now a clerk with the Ministry of Public Construction and National Housing is on remand on charges of swindling the ministry of about $1 Million in just two months early this year.
Godfrey Nyahwa (26) who is on $20 000 bail is alleged to have swindled the ministry of $972 822.22 between April and May by altering the amounts of goods supplied to the ministry by private companies.
Although the case has not been heard yet two others involved in the racket -which is reminiscent of the Paweni drought relief food scandal of the early 1980s in which Paweni swindled the government of more than $5 million by issuing false claims- have already been jailed.
Only two years ago, seven officials from the Ministry of Public Construction and National Housing were arrested for swindling the ministry. They were replaced with new crop of supposedly more honesty officials but it appears the administrative loopholes and the chances of getting away with it are too tempting.
There is also an urgent need to arrest the situation because the ministry has a lot of products that are hard to come by on the open market. These include cement, paint, bricks, plumbing materials -in fact, all the building materials that are at its disposal for both new works and maintenance of existing buildings are in short supply.
With $407 million set aside for construction works and a further $40 million for maintenance work during the current financial year there will even be greater temptation for its employees to siphon some of the funds especially in view of the low wage increases granted to civil servants recently.
Another major reason to improve the administration of the ministry is that there has been slack security from the days of colonial rule.
During the colonial days when the ministry was still known as the Public Works Department and later as the Ministry of Works white supervisors and foremen in that era “took away”, at will, whatever they wanted from stores to either improve their private homes or plots or farms.
They did not “steal” the property as such -although that is exactly what they did but no one dared say so- and they even used government (black) labour for no fee for that matter.
Black employees who were believed to be a threat and could expose these thefts were quickly promoted to do office jobs where they had no way of seeing what was happening or were simply fired on some flimsy excuse.
A walk through some of the older, and usually cheaper, low density suburbs in any urban centre will show which houses were once occupied by civil servants although they did not belong to the government.
It would appear that black bosses who took over are doing the same but unlike in the past where general labourers and junior staff cowered to the “baases” today’s junior employees are now following suit and threatening to expose their bosses if they try to reprimand them.
As such it is now a free for all. The only persons who can put a stop to this rot are senior officers from head office, that is, if they happen stumble upon the thefts, and they have done so on a number of occasions.
The thefts are so rampant that in January this year, while investigating the story on how semi-skilled employees of the ministry who wanted to be upgraded were trade-tested on private jobs, one official of the ministry told The Insider there were so many scandals within the ministry that he needed a clue on which scandal to confirm.
The scandal published in the February issue of The Insider followed complaints from some of the semi-skilled workers who had been tested on private jobs that they believed there was something sinister about the tests. One of the workers who was bitter said he had been given a low grade yet he had not been supplied with enough materials.
The Department of Industrial Training in the Ministry of Higher Education which is responsible for trade tests said there was nothing sinister about the testing of government employees on private property and said all one had to do was provide material and request for the job to be done by those wishing to be trade-tested.
The officials insisted that this was a risk because no one could complain about poor workmanship if the job was not properly done.
Sources, however, told The Insider that the story caused a furore within the department as it dawned on those involved that someone could be on to their racket and there was a lot of witch-hunting about who had leaked the story to The Insider.