DAYS OF TONSE ADMINISTRATION – PART ONE

Secretary to President and Cabinet (SPC) Zangazanga Chikhosi

How OPC bulldozed CEO recruitment and fired the board when it refused

BY PIJ INVESTIGATIONS

The Tonse administration promised the moon during campaign time but has delivered so little, including on the pledge of good governance. Tonse administration promised strict adherence to rule of law and non-interference in independent institutions, among others, but that is not what is obtaining in the country, certainly not what has happened at the National Water Resources Authority where the Platform for Investigative Journalism can exclusively reveal how frantic and desperate attempts to impose a candidate on the vacant position of the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the board led to a standoff between the board and government.

All the public was told, however, through a public statement released on 14th April by the Minister of Water and Sanitation Abida Mia that the government had terminated—ahead of time—the tenure of the current board. 

“The Ministry of Water and Sanitation wishes to inform the public that the National Water Resources Authority (NWRA) Board has been dissolved with immediate effect. The dissolution is in accordance with Section 32 of the General Interpretation Act which empowers the responsible Minister to appoint or dissolve the Board,” read the public announcement.

They say the devil is in the detail, this time around, there was no hiding within the corridors of power where a curious power play has been going on between the Office of President and Cabinet (OPC) and the board which has stuck to its guns on recruitment of the new CEO against the wishes of the OPC hierarchy.

At the centre of the storm, though, is a candidate of OPC’s choice, Dr. Dwight Kambuku, a candidate whom the board accused of doing more than lobbying for the job; threatening another candidate who emerged successful in the recruitment interviews, and worse, who offered a corrupt inducement to the board, to get the job.

And OPC, drunk on power, has been the enabler and supporter in chief of the candidate and when the board refused for the umpteenth time to appoint OPC’s man, Madam Minister snapped, firing the board.

But first, introductions. It’s September 2021. The newly formed authority has been given a mandate by the law to regulate all matters of water in the country, from construction of dams to boreholes, from water harvesting to protecting and cleaning up rivers, and anything in between. 

And of course, huge money will pass through the authority, including a multi-million-dollar World Bank project. More of that later.

So, the board of NWRA comprised the chairperson—the eminent water engineer—Osborne Shella, deputy Chairperson—the tourism entrepreneur—George Wardlow, Lawrence Malemia, a board member, Zidwe Jere, board member, Dr. Modesta Kanjaye, an ex-officio board member representing the Ministry of Forestry and Natural Resources and Jasleen Chirembo another ex-officio representing Department of Statutory Corporation (DSC) decides to advertise the call for recruitment of the new CEO.

After holding interviews, according to board minutes obtained by the PIJ and multiple interviews, Engineer Geoffrey Mamba emerges as the successful candidate and the board officially offers Mamba the job. 

By 21st September 2021, however, Mamba had turned down the job–a job he applied for, emerged a successful candidate for, and initially accepted the job offer.

Allegedly, according to board minutes PIJ has seen, another candidate Dr. Dwight Kambuku had sent Engineer Mamba text messages and visited him to discourage him from accepting the position of Executive Director.

Whatever magic wand Kambuku –allegedly—employed, worked. Mamba backed off.

 “During the first day of negotiations, Engineer Geoffrey Mamba withdrew because he felt the post was political, and his family told him to back off.

This was after he had sent an acceptance letter to the Chairman for the post offered to him. However, after further discussion with the NWRA chairman and the director of Water Resources, he agreed to proceed and finish the negotiations,” reads board minutes we have sourced.

Secretary to President and Cabinet (SPC) Zangazanga Chikhosi has been implicated in interference with recruitment 

But Kambuku was not supposed to be included on the list of short-listed candidates anyway, after failing to fit the initial criteria for candidates to be shortlisted for interviews. But Kambuku had OPC on speed dial, —allegedly—complaining to OPC after failing to be shortlisted to ask the board to revise the shortlisting criteria. 

“The board recalled the way it was directed to re-evaluate and reduce the shortlisting criteria for “Executive Director’s candidates after he, Dr. Kambuku complained to OPC, who queried NWRA and was shortlisted accordingly when the original shortlisting did not include him because he had indicated his age. The NWRA interview panel originally dropped him like others who had not indicated age as the Statutory Corporation Department advised that anyone above 57 years should not be considered,” reads parts of the minutes.

Kambuku not only had OPC to do his bidding but apparently—allegedly—someone at the Statutory Corporations Department, too. 

Immediately after the board made a resolution for the appointment of the Executive Director, on 17th September 2021, Dr. Kambuku sent WhatsApp messages to the Director of Water Resources and the NWRA Chairman, both members of the interview panel and Board members of NWRA. 

“The messages revealed he did not only know the secret and confidential Board’s resolution but was also lobbying and revealing he would fight to get the position whatever it took to be his,” reads some minutes.

The PIJ has sourced a WhatsApp conversation between Kambuku and Kanjaye, the Director of Water Resources, held on 21st September 2021.

“Head to head with Director Mamba is not very healthy. Nkhondo iyiyi siitha bwino,” he wrote with a laughing emoji at the end at 11.23.

He added: “And why would he want to leave ku DoI? Zododometsa. If he is successful with this switch, which I doubt, will we be sending signal yowawa to our DWR fraternity nanga si tachita import? Aziti kodi ndife madeya?” he wrote again, finishing with a laughing emoji at 11.49.

But the Director of Water Resources was not amused and responded without any emojis at 11.49: “Who told you? I’m sworn to secrecy until the results are officially announced.”

“kkk I understand madam DWR,” Kambuku wrote with another emoji.

“Thank you, Dwight,” wrote Kanyaye.

Kambuku was not done and so was OPC.

First Kambuku. He turned to the Board chairperson, a regional chairperson of UTM, a member of the governing alliance in the northern region, with an offer to help secure any party position of his choice, according to sources at NWRA and a development confirmed by Shella in an interview with PIJ.

“I would like to singularly thank you Chair for the support rendered this far. Hundreds upon hundreds of professionals behind me are grateful and ready to support any political move you would choose to take downstream. It’s a resource that’s now available for you. We will achieve great results together,” Kambuku wrote Shella via WhatsApp on 15th February 2021.

Former NWRA Board Chairperson Osborne Shella

Then OPC turned the screws on the board. At an extraordinary board meeting held at Matundu Lodge in Salima, held on 23rd February 2022, the board reviewed a letter from Statutory Corporations Reference Number C1/84/02 dated 09th February 2022 which demanded evidence why Kambuku could not be appointed Executive Director of NWRA. This was after the board had at its board meeting on 23rd November 2021 refused once again to appoint Kambuku and listed reasons for the refusal.

Minutes of NWRA board meeting sourced by PIJ

According to sources within the board, still, OPC insisted that the board hire Kambuku, at one point, suggesting at least, on a provisional three months deal, to assess if he could do a good job. The board refused.

Adamant, OPC then drafted a letter offering the job to Kambuku, but the Chairperson of the board refused to sign the letter. “Maybe ask my deputy to sign it,” Shella, the board chairperson, reportedly informed OPC. His deputy, Wardlow, also flatly refused to sign the offer letter. 

Then OPC snapped. The board was dissolved by the Minister without providing any reasons.

According to the 2013 Water Resources Act, which established the NWRA, a member, other than an ex-officio member, shall hold office for a period of three years and may be eligible for re-appointment from time to time.

Speaking in an interview, former board chairperson Shella confirmed the alleged interference by the government.

“The Act is very clear that the board is responsible for the recruitment of the executive management, which includes the Executive Director and other directors. We conducted the interviews in September last year and made resolutions on 17th September to the Government whom we had picked, but the response to the same only came in November…

“What cropped up is that soon after the interviews, on 21st September, I got a WhatsApp message from one of the recommended candidates who came number 2 promising support in any elective manoeuvre I would make, that he has hundreds and hundreds of professionals who can support me which was unusual and to me, it was disturbing because the same guy queried SPC and SPC queried us that he should be on the interviewing list. Unfortunately, I was not the only member he communicated to, he also communicated to another board member revealing, more or less, challenging that he will fight for the post,” Shella told PIJ.

Shella said the recruitment has dragged on as the government did not want other candidates other than “the person who confessed political ambitions and demonstrated to the board unbecoming behaviour.” 

Dr Dwight Kambuku is at the centre of recruitment saga at the National Water Resource Authority (NWRA)

Kambuku denied the accusations in an interview. On the accusation that he arm-twisted Mamba, the first candidate, he said he was not even aware that Mamba had been offered the job. “Suffice to say however that the mentioned person is a fellow engineer and someone I have known for the past 17 years,” he said.

He further denied reaching out to the board members during the recruitment processes.

“I have never done that. As a candidate, I am still waiting for the results of the ED interviews I attended on 14 September 2021. The two people you’ve mentioned are people I know, and we are in the same sector, the water sector. Just like I can speak to you, I speak to these people. That said, I think your questions are based on information someone passed on to you about me. I may not know their motive, but I should believe I have a right to know the information/allegations against me and reply to same than working with speculations. People are smart these days. They can fabricate anything to suit their narrative. Would you share if there is anything to this effect?” said Kambuku.

Did you offer the board chairperson support for her political activities if he offered you the job, PIJ specifically asked Kambuku?

He responded: “I have no recollection of that. However, it must be mentioned that I am not a politician and do not hold any position in any party. I recollect, however, having read from social media somewhere in 2018 that the Board Chairperson once served as Regional Chairman for Malawi Congress Party in the North before resigning and joining another party. He is, therefore, more of a politician, handling his business with political considerations, than I could be in years, and it can not be me offering him political support but rather the other way round if I were to be a politician.”

Minister of Water and Sanitation Abida Mia did not respond to our questions on the matter.

NWRA was established by the Water Resources Act (2013) with the mandate to provide for the management, conservation, use, and control of water resources and for the acquisition and regulation of rights to use water.