BY JOSEPHINE CHINELE
The Ministry of Agriculture has failed in its duty to provide career support to eight of its employees whose scholarships were abruptly discontinued for no reason or official communication.
The ministry has further failed to explain how the money that was set aside for the scholarships was spent. For over three weeks, PIJ has been pursuing them to hear their side of the story, but the Ministry of Agriculture has failed to grant us an interview on this matter.
The employees dropped out of their upgrading course at the University of Malawi, formerly Chancellor College, after studying only for two semesters in the two-year study course after the ministry failed to release the money to facilitate their studies.
In 2010, the ministry officially awarded eight employees with scholarships. The victims also separately confirmed this to PIJ in interviews.
PIJ has a letter written by the then Secretary for Agriculture and Food Security Erica Maganga, dated October 21, 2010 reference no 30/8/33 titled Offer of Scholarship that indicates that the Government through the Agricultural Development Programme Support Project (ADP-SP) of her ministry awarded them with a scholarship to pursue a Diploma in Statistics at the national institution.
“I wish to advise that the scholarship is strictly for two years from the year 2010/2011, after which you will be expected to return to your workstation immediately,” wrote Maganga in the letter PIJ has sent to Waya.
It further stated that the Government would ‘therefore not accommodate any requests for extensions’.
“In line with the existing policy on training, you are requested to sign a training bond before proceeding on the training programme,” the letter further said.
When contacted to find out if she knows anything about this issue and if she is aware of whether the scholarships materialised or not, Maganga said she does not remember the issue.
“I’m now at the Ministry of Defence and I can only respond to issues regarding this ministry and not the ministry of Agriculture where I was…. I have signed many letters whilst I worked there, so I can’t even remember specific issues,” she told PIJ.
ADP-SP was a World Bank-funded project which was targeting subsistence farmers throughout Malawi, and according to a World Bank document had an estimated total cost of US$51.71 million.
The project was implemented for over a five-year period, with a completion date of September 15, 2013.
The project’s Environmental and Social Impact Assessment report sourced from the World Bank website indicates that the ministry of agriculture developed a prioritized sector program, called the Agricultural Development Programme (ADP), incorporating the Agriculture Input Subsidy Program, in support of the Malawi Growth and Development Strategy (MGDS).
“The development objective of the ADP Support Project (ADP-SP) is to improve the effectiveness and sustainability of investments in the agricultural sector, aimed at food security and agriculture-led economic growth,” the report reads in part.
The project further was set to strengthen the institutional capabilities necessary to develop and implement a harmonized and aligned investment framework leading towards a full-fledged Sector Wider Approach in the agricultural sector, among others.
According to the admission letters from the University and explanations from the disgruntled employees, the ministry was expected to spend a total of K17, 280, 000 for the eight employees had it honoured its commitment.
One of the employees Ester Waya said for the first semester, the ministry paid K150,000 to the University as tuition and gave each student K540,000 for upkeep and book allowance. For the eight employees, the ministry spent K5,520,000.
For the second semester, the ministry was scheduled to spend a total of K3,120,000 since the upkeep, according to Salima had now come down to K240,000 as it was minus the book allowance.
Based on the PIJ analysis, the Ministry of Agriculture is failing to account for the K11,760,000 that would have facilitated the completion of the studies for the employees at the university.
“We completed our level one and sat for examinations at the mercy of the university’s administration. This was done with the hope that by the time the results would be out, the ministry would have settled the tuition fees balances, if not, they would withhold our results. The ministry never paid. But we went back to do level two. We tried to push for payment, but we were referred from one person to the other for another year until we finally dropped out. We never got our results,” lamented Dalitso Mbewe, one of the employees.
Stuck in Their Career
Since then, the victims claim, they are still on the same entry grade (Grade M) within the civil service for over 12 years. They further allege that the aim of the scholarship was to have them promoted to another grade after obtaining a Diploma in Statistics.
Waya disclosed her career has been hopeless.
“My salary is very little for me to try to upgrade myself. Besides, I remember we were employed as enumerators in a non-established position, which means our position isn’t recognised by the government employment system.”
Another victim, Omega Kalulu, says she resigned from the ministry due to career frustrations coupled with other work-related ‘politics’.
She said theirs was the second Cohort to be awarded scholarships to study for a Diploma in Statistics at the same institution.
“The then Human Resource Officer (now Deceased) verbally told me that the ministry was not going to pay for us because people in the first Cohort failed, so the ministry was not going to pay for us,” she recalled.
Kalulu added: “This has really affected us, it has obstructed our career progression. I was employed in 2006 on grade M and resigned in 2017 on the same grade. The ministry wasted our precious time. If we did self upgrading, we would have made great career progression. I know of several people who were not on this scholarship but are far ahead of us career-wise.”
“I’m so frustrated and angry over this issue right now because, at the same time as that scholarship, I had also been awarded an opportunity to study at Natural Resources College. I opted for the Chanco opportunity because it was a scholarship, whilst with the other one I was going to pay for my tuition fees. I wasted two years. My colleagues who went to NRC have made great career progress,” lamented Precious Chitsulo, another victim.
Hopeless Legal Battle
Out of disappointment, the employees sued the ministry for breach of obligation, which led to wasted time and a frustrated career. But the process has been stuck at the Ministry of Justice, there has been zero progress. PIJ has learnt that this is the case because the lawyer who handled the case file is no longer working for the ministry.
Earlier, one of the employees, Angela Mlelemba, individually took the case to the same Law Firm, Zapinga and Company. She won the case and the Attorney General’s office agreed to pay the examining board, Royal Statistics Examination body its arrears and other costs upon production of an invoice quoting the amount to be paid. But this was too late, the examining body had closed shop. There was then an agreement between the AG’s office and the Law Firm to have the money paid to the client instead.
According to the correspondence we have seen, Zapinga and Company agreed to the settlement of a K2.5 Million payment to Mlelemba as compensation. But she was never paid.
Mlelemba suspects that the people who pushed for their scholarship in order for them to be in the Agro-Economics Survey unit which was to be established within the ministry left, hence others did not value the need for their cohort to upgrade.
“They might have done this just to frustrate us, for reasons best known to themselves. We are at least sure that the money was there, just that the people in authority have not been helpful,” she told PIJ.
The other seven employees’ cases never made it to this stage, even after two years of follow-ups.
Zapinga and Company Lawyer, Jabrie Zapinga blamed the Ministry of Justice for the delays in concluding the two cases.
“We have always been pushing them but from what I have established, there is nobody handling Mlelemba’s case. The one who handled the case file left the ministry. But for the second case, we are yet to reach an agreement. The one who was handling this case also changed jobs,” he said.
Ministry of Justice spokesperson, Pirilani Masanjala, said it’s been hard to get information on the progress of the case because it’s an old case.
“In most cases, because we were sued, the cases could delay when the ones who sued us haven’t been aggressive in pushing the issue at the Courts. In addition to this, it seems the lawyers who handled the cases are no longer with the ministry of justice,” he said.
After two years of waiting for the lawyer to seek justice, the victims took the matter to the Office of the Ombudsman. To their surprise, the case has taken another full year there.
“We were told that this is a straightforward issue. The issue was handled by Mr Paul Njola who contacted the ministry of agriculture on the matter. He alleged they didn’t respond and 21 days elapsed. They wrote the second and the final letter. We were told the procedure is to write them three times. But then Mr Njola also suddenly ‘lost interest’ in our issue. It’s now been a year,” Mbewe elaborated.
Office of Ombudsman Spokesperson, Arthur Semba confirmed that the ministry of agriculture has delayed responding, but his office assured that his organisation is still in touch with the ministry on this matter.
“We have one or two issues which I can’t reveal now. But whenever there are such disagreements, we want to ensure that we hear from both sides and why they have a particular stand. After you (PIJ) contacted them (on this story) they promised to revert to us,” he said.
The Department of Human Resource Management and Development (DHRMD) says that generally having non-established positions means the positions are non-existent in the service, the people are recruited based on a need or situation and not because they went through the normal interview process.
DHRM Spokesperson, Kennie Mtonga admitted that it was an error for the ministry to send the people in non-established positions for upgrading.
“It was an error for them to be kept for that long as well. People in non-established positions are on temporary employment and are not entitled to other benefits such as pensions, loans among other things,” he said.