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Coronavirus diary – Part 24

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(Photo by Saidu BAH / AFP)

This instalment deals with corruption, a pandemic within a pandemic. This is a systemic pathology that has rendered many societies impoverished because of a thieving elite profiting from the misfortune of their societies. With COVID-19 taking its toll on humans world-wide, those enamoured of profit but less for the larger humanity are plundering what is meant to be succour for the endangered human species a la COVID-19. As the Kenyan anti-corruption activist Wanjeri Nderu, puts it, “Theft doesn’t even stop during a pandemic.” We view corruption here in the context of the fight against COVID-19 as any practice, on the part of individuals, public officials, and corporate organisations that deviates and undermines the effort to curb and defeat COVID-19.

There are many practices or wrongdoings relating to the fight against COVID-19. Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Zimbabwe exemplify the plague of corruption in Africa. For Latin America, Financial Times says it all, “Coronavirus corruption cases spread across Latin America” and Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Mexico are among some of the Latin American countries in the loop. In Europe, Estonia, Italy, Romania, and Slovenia are among some of the countries tainted by the COVID-19 related corruption.

Let’s turn the searchlight on Africa. In Kenya, there were allegations of impropriety over the procurement of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for use by healthcare workers at the state-run Kenya Medical Supplies Authority (KEMSA), prompting a probe by the country’s Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission. As a result, Jonah Manjari, the head of KEMSA, and other officials were suspended.

In Nigeria, that country described by former British Prime Minister, David Cameron as fantastically corrupt, it is a different kettle of fish. The NDDC claimed it spent N1.32 billion about 200 million dollars as COVID-19 relief. This was confirmed by the Acting Managing Director of Niger Delta Development Commission, Kemebradikumo Pondei in a probe of the commission’s activities by the National Assembly. But Chief Sobomabo Jackrich, Chairman of the COVID-19 Palliatives Distribution Committee of the NDDC who petitioned the committees on privilege and ethics of both chambers of the National Assembly, alleged the misappropriation of N6.2 billion approved by President Buhari as palliatives for the region.

Also, CivicHive, good governance NGO noted that Nigeria’s Ministry of Health had spent N37.06m ($96,000) on 1,808 ordinary face masks, about $53 each based on the Bureau of Public Procurement data. In Nigeria, corruption is in fierce competition between institutions of government. Beyond the NDDC heist, there was the Federal Ministry of Humanitarian, Disaster Management and Social Development affairs under a certain Hajiya Sadiya Umar Farouk who claimed that his ministry distributed COVID-19 palliatives to Nigerians, especially the poor and the vulnerable. The parameters for this exercise were unknown. In a country without reliable data, such an exercise was bound to be adorned with corruption.

The ministry went to the extent of claiming to have expended billions of public resources in ‘feeding’ school children who were out of school due to the COVID-19 lockdown. This being incredible, some civil society organisations took up the issues. For example, the Human Rights Writers Association of Nigeria (HURIWA) described the ministry as a cesspool of corruption, where transparency and accountability are outlandish.

Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) even sought a judicial review on the matter seeking “an order to direct and compel Ms. Umar-Farouk and Mr. Emefiele [Governor of the Central bank of Nigeria] to publish an up-to-date list of donations and names of those who have made payments as per their publicly announced donations; spending details of the N500 billion COVID-19 intervention fund, and the names of beneficiaries, and whether such beneficiaries include people living with disabilities (PWDs).”

Also, South Africa is entangled in the corruption web. President Cyril Ramaphosa set up a ministerial committee to look into “corruption in the procurement of goods and services sourced for the purpose of containing and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic”. South Africa’s Special Investigating Unit, a government agency, at some point, placed 102 companies in the province of Gauteng under investigation. Gauteng’s top health official, Bandile Masuku, and his wife had been implicated in the contract deals. More intriguing is the fact that the contracting process has been underlined by default in the supply of PPE price inflation.

Damningly for the government’s reputation is the fact that contracts have been awarded to companies and people connected to the government and the governing African National Congress Party (ANC). Of interest is Ramahosa’s chief spokeswoman, Khusela Diko whose husband’s company was accused of winning a $7m contract to supply PPE. The president seemed to have buttressed the centrality of government and party officials in the cycle of sleaze when he noted that the party was “Accused No. 1”.

In Zimbabwe, the Health Minister, Obadiah Moyo, was charged for COVID-19 Corruption. He was accused of abuse of office concerning the procurement COVID-19 tests and other medical equipment. For that reason he was arrested and subsequently granted bail. Allegedly, he awarded the US$60 million contract to Drax Consult, a subsidiary of Drax International, without due process. Concerning this allegation, the local representative of Drax and some officials of the state-run National Pharmaceutical Company. If convicted, the minister who had already been sacked by President Emmerson Mnangagwa could do a 15years jail term. Sadly, corruption is costing Zimbabwe $2 billion annually.

Uganda complements the list of African countries in the COVID-19 corruption mix. The country recalled its ambassador to Denmark, Nimisha Madhvani, and her deputy after they were recorded over a scheme to divert money meant for COVID-19. In the light of the foregoing, Sheila Masinde, executive director at the Kenyan chapter of Transparency International is right to have observed that “… COVID-19 has just given an opportunity for another level of looting, with public procurement being a key epicentre of corruption across the board in different countries.”

According, to Financial Times, “Dozens of high-profile officials and politicians across Latin America are being swept up in investigations into whether they used their positions to siphon funds intended to tackle the coronavirus pandemic”. Bolivia’s health minister, Marcelo was detained following claims of inflated prices for ventilators to treat coronavirus patients. In Brazil, the federal police launched multiple investigations involving several state and city-level officials and at least three state governors. The contract sum under investigation came to about $200million.

Of interest is Wilson Witzel, the governor of Rio who came under impeachment threat for embezzling money through field hospital supplies. In Ecuador, former Abdalá Bucaram was arrested in an investigation into alleged corruption over the purchase of medical supplies to the city of Guayaquil. A search of his premises yielded 5,000 masks, 2,000 coronavirus test kits, and one unlicensed gun. In Mexico, the son of a friend of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador reportedly tried to sell ventilators to a state institution, the state social security institute at an inflated price.

His company was subsequently fined 2m pesos ($89,376) by the anti-corruption ministry over violation of public ethics. In Panama, a deputy minister stepped down over the alleged purchase of overpriced ventilators.

Ilya Lozovsky, a staff writer at The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), provides us an introduction in the caption of her story, “In Europe’s Scramble to Buy COVID-19 Supplies, Anti-Corruption Measures Fall Away – OCCRP”. In Estonia, there is opaqueness about the import of a large shipment of surgical masks. In Italy, state contracts were awarded to companies with histories of fraud and misappropriation of public funds. Slovenia, the government awarded the COVID-19 contract valued at about €25 million to “a gambling mogul with no known experience in medical procurement”. And in Romania, a former public official who has been convicted of colluding with a violent organized criminal group supplied protective equipment to the government. Specifically, BSG Business Select executed a government order valued at €860,000 for masks and protective suits without due process. In the United Kingdom, to have a bite of the apple, new firms with names related to COVID-19 have registered in the company registry. Truly, Lozovsky notes that “Government purchases account for close to a third of state spending in high-income countries, and a RAND study found that corruption in this area could cost EU taxpayers $5 billion per year”.

COVID-19 corruption is not all about cash; those who neglected to take action in time to combat the dreaded virus were equally guilty of corruption. President Xi Jinping of China; President Donald Trump of the United States; and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom were guilty of the disaster that befell their countries and the world. For example, Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist who worked at Wuhan Central Hospital and raised alarm about the virus was silenced by government officials. In the US, Trump lived in self-delusion about the lethality of the virus. And his UK counterpart, Boris Johnson slumbered.

Given the world-wide COVID-19 corruption, only time will tell what happens to the IMF COVID-19 emergency credit facility being given out to needy countries globally. No wonder that the Bretton Woods body is being urged to include some transparency and anti-corruption conditionalities to ensure that the $250 billion, a quarter of its $1 trillion lending capacity, given to member states meets the goal of saving lives.

Akhaine is a Professor of Political Science at the Lagos State University.


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