Sweden and the Netherlands have temporarily suspended $33 million in aid to Zambia after reports surfaced that $2 million were embezzled, allegedly by senior health ministry officials. The frozen donor funds are about one-fourth of the $120 million total committed to Zambia for this year by the two European nations. Sanday Chongo Kabange covers Zambia for the Voice of America. From Lusaka, he says that the scandal may diminish services for HIV/AIDS and treatment of malaria. But it also could be costly politically to recently elected president Rupiah Banda.
“It’s some kind of a test case for Mr. Banda because just after the death of the late president, Levy Mwanawasa, Mr. Banda put up a strong commitment that he was going to tackle corruption. It really is a blow to his government because he will really have to put up a very strong, transparent, and fast-track program that is going to win back confidence from the donor community and the rest of Zambians,” he observed.
Finance Minister Situmbeko Musokotwane told reporters Thursday the Lusaka government is upset about the missing money, since it serves a sector that assists what he called “the poorest of the poor” in Zambian society who need the basic health services the most.
“They were saying that most likely to be affected is the HIV and AIDS program, and the government is likely to cut and derail the center of the project in order to find the supplement funds for issues to do with HIV and AIDS. Now, HIV is one of the most critical issues in sub-Saharan Africa, Zambia included,” Kabange pointed out.
To bridge an expected $5 million monthly shortfall, Finance Minister Musokotwane said the government would develop a contingency plan and authorities have vowed to investigate the disappearing funds so that donors do not lose confidence in the Lusaka government.
Kabange points to an altered administrative procedure during the Mwanawasa administration that may have triggered the current heist.
“Some controlling officers within certain ministries complained that the people were putting undue pressure to publish certain expenditures. So Mr. Mwanawasa then suspended the publication of expenditures, and this meant that nobody would follow how the money was used after it was donated. Lack of publication of these expenditures may have led to a syndicate of a few individuals who have allegedly diverted or siphoned this huge amount of money from state coffers,” he claimed.
Poverty and disease have contributed to a high AIDS death rate in the southern African country. Former President Mwanawasa won the admiration of foreign donors because of his tough attitude to curb corruption. Following his death last year and the election of his successor, President Banda has been criticized by Zambian civil society groups for not being vigilant enough to fight corruption.