March 16, 2005

Government embarks on anti-corruption drive

Swaziland's justice ministry will table an Anti-Corruption Bill in the next few weeks, in an effort to curb malpractices that government leaders say the impoverished nation cannot afford.
"I certainly look forward to the Ministry of Justice giving teeth to the Anti-Corruption Unit this year. The twin evils of bribery and corruption have become the order of the day in the country," Finance Minister Majozi Sithole explained. A private consultant hired by the finance ministry estimated that government was losing more than R40 million (US $6.5 million) per month to corrupt practices. "Some highly placed individuals connive with government officials to inflate contracts, or even make government pay for services that were never rendered. The playground for corruption is in goods and services, as well as construction projects," the finance minister noted.

An Anti-Corruption Unit was established in 1998, but to date it has not produced a single indictment. This is because legislation giving the unit the powers it needs to investigate and bring cases against suspects has not been enacted. "By setting up the unit, but then withholding a budget and any real power, government was playing a cynical game of proclaiming it is serious about stopping corruption, while in reality it was doing nothing. This has emboldened the embezzlers and bribe-givers and bribe-takers, who bought into government's cynicism," said a Swaziland Law Society source. Sceptics of official seriousness about an anti-corruption campaign point to incidents at the Central Transportation Authority (CTA), a source of continuous scandal and a drain on the treasury. Government vehicles are serviced and filled with petrol at CTA facilities, but the media have reported allegations of vehicles and petrol pumps being misused for years. Legislation to privatise the facility was passed in 1975, but after the recommendations of at least four investigative commissions, some government officials are loathe to privatise the facility, for which R225 million ($36.8 million) has been budgeted this year. As evidence that government is serious about rooting out corruption, Sithole said that, for the first time, the Berlin-based NGO, Transparency International (TI), has been invited to investigate the practices of government ministries. "Agents, not necessarily from finance but from the justice ministry and law enforcement, will go into each ministry to dig out information," he said.

Political observers said identifying corruption was only the first step in eliminating it.
This week in parliament, former house speaker Marwick Khumalo, now an ordinary MP, was found guilty of misuse of government funds by an investigative panel, but no disciplinary action has been initiated against him. Former justice minister Magwagwa Mdluli, chairman of the investigative committee, also reported that some cabinet ministers were drawing two salary cheques, and putting civilian registration plates on their government vehicles so they could use them for private errands. The independent Times of Swaziland has also reported that the country had not submitted itself to an African Union peer review on governance because it feared critical findings. Future international aid will, in some instances, be tied to nations' willingness to undergo peer review and subsequently receiving a favourable report. The G8 countries, the African Development Bank and other donors are making future aid conditional upon good governance, including transparency in government spending, efforts to address corruption and the accountability of officials. "For obvious reasons, the Kingdom of Swaziland has not signed up for the peer review," the Times commented in an editorial.

The impact of the finance minister's estimate that corruption on the national level, excluding local government, was costing the treasury about R500 million ($81.9 million) annually, can be measured against the country's other needs, including its historically high R746 million ($122 million) national debt in 2005. "Only R30 million ($4.9 million) is available for a new programme to address the needs of the nation's elderly - we lose more than that in one month to corruption," noted Thabsile Mavuso, an official with an NGO dealing with AIDS Orphans. (IRIN)


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