Those who had optimistic expectations that President Hakainde Hichilema's 'New Dawn' administration in Zambia would effectively tackle corruption and the embezzlement of public funds might be reconsidering their stance in light of recent developments in a pivotal case—the theft of over a billion kwacha of public funds by government officials within the Ministry of Finance.

Reinstatement of Directors Raises Concerns

In a disheartening twist of events, the ministry has reinstated five directors—Hector Sampa and Emmy Chenguluka for the Accountant General’s office, and three others—Jemmy Mukuwa, Namaambo Kalyangile and Esther Konga for the Controller of Internal Audit’s office.

These directors, along with others, were transferred to the Cabinet Office in March of this year to facilitate investigations and prevent tampering with documents.

Twenty other senior officials, including a Permanent Secretary in the Ministry, were arrested, even though the Anti-Corruption Commission (ACC) has yet to take them to court.

It is alleged that the retained directors in the ministry played a role in the theft and have close ties to the arrested suspects.

ACC’s Handling and Suspected Deal

Based on information from a credible source within the ACC, the authority has not officially exonerated these directors. Instead, there appears to be a deal in place that involves their non-retention in the ministry.

The Auditor’s Expose

This story dates back to 2021 when Grandy Ntumbo, a Principal Internal Auditor employed within the Ministry of Finance, was tasked with investigating financial irregularities within the Ministry of General Education.

During this investigation, he uncovered extensive money laundering and corruption schemes involving public funds, which had far-reaching implications, even reaching the Ministry of Finance itself.

The financial irregularities in the Ministry of Finance came to light in August 2022 when Transparency International Zambia conducted its own investigation revealing the embezzlement of over K1 billion from the state treasury. The embezzlement occurred through fictitious allowances and a five-year payroll fraud.

Additional instances of financial irregularities included K21 million spent on illegal travel allowances for senior Ministry of General Education officials and payments exceeding K2 million for goods that were never delivered. Another example involved the theft of K530,000 at the Provincial Education Office in Kabwe.

Although these financial irregularities were reported to both the ACC and the Drug Enforcement Commission (DEC), leading to the arrest of 20 senior government officials, including the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Finance, the Accountant General, and the Controller of Internal Audit, there has been no progress on the case.

Victimisation of the whistleblower

Amidst these developments, the individual who exposed the massive embezzlement, Ntumbo is residing in a safehouse owned by DEC while awaiting further investigation and potential prosecution of those responsible for the offenses he uncovered. However, he has been facing targeted actions from certain high-ranking government officials who managed to evade arrest.

The victimisation has taken various forms, including unjustified disciplinary actions initiated by senior government officials at the Ministry of Finance.

In an inexplicable move, he was abruptly transferred to Mongu in the Western Province. For nearly a year, his salary was intentionally withheld, and was entirely removed from the payroll, intensifying his distress.

In response to the actions of these senior government officials, the ACC issued warning and caution statements, advising restraint and discouraging any interference in ongoing investigations or further mistreatment of the Auditor, which was ignored and the persecution continued.

Legal Action and Expanded Lawsuit

The harassment prompted Ntumbo to take legal action against his employer – the Ministry for transferring him to Mongu in Western Province and withholding his salary since January 2023, despite being aware of his placement in a safe house for safety reasons.

The lawsuit's scope expanded to include the ACC and DEC alleging their failure to protect him against the mistreatment.  

In a significant development on December 13, 2023, the Supreme Court delivered a landmark verdict, overturning the transfer and dismissing the disciplinary hearing against Ntumbo.

Judge Catherine Kunda Makungu, presiding over the case in the Supreme Court, not only directed the payment of Ntumbo's remuneration in arrears but also mandated the ACC to secure an immediate safe house for him.

This legal showdown in the Supreme Court follows a denial of leave to proceed with judicial review proceedings by Lusaka High Court Judge, Elita Phiri Mukwisa. Despite this setback, the Appeals Court's decisive intervention signals a pivotal moment in the whistleblower's fight for justice.

The courtroom setback unfolded as Judge Mwikisa, at the High Court, rejected leave to proceed with judicial review, citing the belief that the case could be resolved through other avenues.

Both the Ministry of Finance and the ACC have not yet responded to MakanDay’s requests for comment.

What is transpiring in this case, particularly concerning Ntumbo, under Hichilema's administration, is a clear indication that old practices persist, prompting questions about his commitment to combating corruption and protecting whistleblowers, as pledged during his election campaign.