CONVICT CORRUPT UPND GOVT OFFICIALS- US Ambassador Michael Gonzales

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Michael Gonzales
Michael Gonzales

CONVICT CORRUPT UPND GOVT OFFICIALS
…when PS repeatedly cancels and re-issues high-value procurement, selecting a limited cohort of bidders it’s a problem – Gonzales

By Fanny Kalonda in Livingstone

WE’RE still waiting to see convictions of current administration officials for corruption, says US Ambassador Michael Gonzales.

He says investigating and arresting former officials is appropriate and expected when there is convincing evidence.

“And over the past decade during which corruption was effectively industrialised by senior officials in government, there is a deep, deep pool of former officials to be held accountable. Because, let’s be honest, when you go into public office having a modest house in a compound, and you leave office with $400,000 in cash laying around the house that you need to pass it to your niece for safe keeping, it calls into question where that money came from, because it wasn’t just your government salary! And if it came from corrupt practices or abuse of office, there must be accountability,” Ambassador Gonzales said. “But it’s important there be comparable attention and investigations to ensure accountable government among current administration officials and political leaders as well. We are still waiting to see convictions of current administration officials for corruption. When the PS repeatedly cancels and re-issues the high-value procurement, selecting a limited cohort of allowed bidders, it’s a problem. When a minister’s son or nephew routinely pressures companies in his father’s or uncle’s sector to give them money to secure licences or concessions, it’s a problem. Let us demonstrate that indeed there are no sacred cows and that no one is above the law. But we all know that despite the lovely words, the Zambian people are only going to believe it when accountability is held, when corrupt officials lose their jobs, their assets, and their freedom.”

Addressing the 2023 Zambia Anti-Corruption Conference in Livingstone on Monday, Ambassador Gonzales said while it takes time for investigations to accumulate sufficient evidence to prosecute, “I urge the government to demonstrate its political will by empowering its anti-corruption, law enforcement, and prosecutorial bodies to ensure accountability and justice are not only retrospective but introspective and that they are not just words but actions”.

“ACC is not going to do it with a small and under-resourced staff. So, funding and equipping Zambia’s accountability institutions now – while parliament is still deliberating on the national budget – is absolutely vital to delivering the action that builds a stronger government, strengthens citizen trust, and enhances credibility of leadership,” he said. “Corruption affects all levels of society and all nations. It erodes public trust in government and democratic institutions, deepens poverty and inequality, threatens public security, and stifles opportunity and democratic and economic growth. It affects people in virtually every aspect of their daily lives, draining vital resources.”

Ambassador Gonzales noted that corruption is a global challenge that all governments face and that there is no one way to tackle it.

“The United States is not immune. But the fundamental truth is that no organisation or government can fight corruption without three key things: transparency, accountability, and political will. This is what I would like to focus on today. Asset Declaration. When we speak about transparency and accountability, we must first understand the tools available to prevent conflicts of interest, corruption, and build public trust for and the integrity of government officials. One such tool is asset declaration, the topic I was specifically asked to speak about,” he said. “Currently, the parliamentary and ministerial code of conduct in Zambia requires members of parliament, the President, Vice-President, Cabinet and provincial ministers, and the Speaker of the National Assembly to declare their income and assets. This is a good start, recognising the important role leaders play in setting the tone for accountable governance. But I would argue, this is not sufficient. I would argue that to be effective we must expand these requirements to include permanent secretaries, directors general, and all controlling officers and employees managing, responsible for, or involved in public procurement and contracts. Such an expansion would strengthen the public trust in government, particularly if these declarations included the income and assets of spouses and children – as we do with public disclosures in the United States – since we know their names are often used to hide illicit assets.”

Ambassador Gonzales said the purpose of asset declarations is to prevent corruption by public officials and make it easier to hold those who do engage in public corruption to account.

“Asset declaration requirements are more effective if they are enshrined in law, and if officials completing these declarations sign them as sworn statements they can be used, if needed, in any legal proceedings. It is also necessary to have accountability officers review the annual declarations and compare them to previous years’ submissions to identify and seek explanations for changes. I would argue the declarations should be electronic to facilitate and automate the content analysis of these declarations and prevent collusion among filers and reviewers,” he said. “I would go one step further in requiring that asset declarations be made available to the public to allow independent civil society to flag issues or conduct targeted audits or investigations. So, I call on the Zambian government to finalize and adopt new comprehensive asset declaration legislation within the next year.”

Ambassador Gonzales said while it’s important to require asset declarations, compliance and accountability are key.

“A March 2022 civil society review of the Asset Declaration Register at the Supreme Court found that only seven of Zambia’s 25 Cabinet ministers and two of the 10 provincial ministers had declared their assets. This is only a 28 per cent and 20 per cent compliance rate, respectively. Where are the penalties for non-compliance by these high-level officials and who holds them accountable? It is inexcusable that those who are required to make such declarations have not done so. This government has gone to great pains to emphasize its focus on enforcement of the rule of law. But, again, leadership is not about only doing the bare minimum that is absolutely required by law, but to going beyond and doing what is right and needed to lead and shape reforms. So, wouldn’t it be powerful if President Hichilema, every sitting minister, and every permanent secretary proactively declared their assets now and did so annually for the remainder of their times in public service? Leadership is demonstrated through actions, not just words, and I urge the Zambian people to demand more from your leaders in terms of transparency and accountability,” he said. “Another key tool available is beneficial ownership declarations. Declarations of assets require officials to disclose all sources of income, including benefits that they receive from a private business or company. We all know that those in prominent influential positions play a key role in creating and exploiting corruption vulnerabilities in the economy. The low compliance of beneficial ownership helps them to hide those companies which they may own which are bidding on government contracts…talk about a conflict of interest. When they win those contracts, the public is absolutely right in asking whether it was because their company provides the best value for money for the Zambian people or whether it’s just their time to eat. So, when someone – say, the information minister’s husband – when their company continues to be awarded massive public contracts – say, for provision of fertiliser under FISP – not only is the public right in asking questions, but, transparent public tenders, declarations of beneficial ownership of companies, and asset declarations of public officials all play key roles in providing public confidence that the taxpayers got value.”

He said these tools provide credibility that the public servant is fully serving the people.

“And, these tools help us highlight if or when the government officials is a crook and to hold them accountable. Ensuring transparency in beneficial ownership is, therefore, a critical component to making asset declaration efforts real. Currently, compliance with beneficial ownership requirements among registered companies in Zambia stands at about 15 per cent, so there is much work to be done. Again, I ask, where is the accountability? How much was PACRA budgeted in order to maintain this registry or is it just a charade?” asked Ambassador Gonzales.

He said transparent public procurement processes, combined with establishing electronic linkages between asset declarations and beneficial ownership would clarify who benefits from public procurement contracts and confirm whether they disclosed these assets in their declarations.

“This strengthens the integrity of the public procurement process and builds citizen trust that government is using public money for their intended purpose and not for personal gain. In addition to transparency – particularly in public procurements – and asset declarations by public officials, increased accountability is essential to effectively combat corruption. There must be consequences for individuals who abuse their public positions for personal gain. They must lose their jobs, their assets, and, or their freedom. The costs of corruption must exceed the financial gain if we are going to stem corrupt practices,” he said. “Remember when I mentioned that I must file disclosures every year? The consequence for even filing my disclosure late is $200 (K4,000). Penalties for failing to file or for filing false claims include fines of up to $70,000 (K1.4 million) in addition to potential criminal charges.”

Ambassador Gonzales commended the ACC for its notable increase in corruption-related investigations and prosecutions.

“I would argue though that the government’s proposed five per cent budget increase for the ACC is insufficient to provide the resources and additional staff the ACC needs to effectively investigate corruption. How can we justify the Anti-Corruption Commission having fewer than 300 employees country-wide to investigate and prosecute corruption cases as well as conduct the necessary oversight and scrutiny of these declarations to prevent the perpetuation of corrupt practices?” he wondered. “The reforms I suggested today are tried and true steps implemented by governments around the world to promote transparency and accountability and reduce corruption that robs from citizens. And that brings me to the question why should we care? Why should Zambians care? By promoting transparency and accountability in public procurement, the government can prevent the introduction of expired medicines that can harm and kill Zambians; prevent the construction of shoddy and unsafe roads that put drivers at risk; and avoid public infrastructure debts that Zambian children and grandchildren will be forced to pay.”

Ambassador Gonzales said the ACC estimates that between 2005 and 2018, Zambia lost $34 billion through mis-invoicing, especially in the mining sector.

“That’s K680 billion. That means that in the past 15 years, a full one-and-a-half years’ worth of the entire country’s productivity went into the pockets of corrupt officials and businessmen! How many schools and hospitals could that have been built with those funds? How many new jobs and investments in agriculture could have been supported? What would the price of mealie meal be today if even a fraction of that $34 billion was invested in productive agriculture? Zambia would have zero debt today! Transparency and accountability build public trust in government by ensuring precious financial resources are used as intended,” said Ambassador Gonzales. “I encourage the government to follow through on its commitments to implement the institutional reforms that will bring the transparency and accountability that is required to successfully combat corruption. Regardless of your position, every one of you here today has a key role to play in fighting corruption. The Zambian people – you, yourselves – can play a key role fighting corruption by demanding that your government act to enforce transparency and accountability.”

Swedish Ambassador to Zambia Johan Hallenborg expressed concern that the country has not seen many convictions in some of the high profile cases.

He stressed the need for people involved in corruption to pay a high price.

Ambassador Hallenborg said forfeiture and asset recovery does not send a strong signal of wrongdoing.

“We are concerned that despite many indications of high levels of corruption, we have not seen many convictions in respect of some of the high profile cases. It appears that some individuals have been arrested in the absence of sufficient evidence. This has a bearing on the success rate of prosecutions. Please note that this is an area where international partners would be willing to increase dialogue in order to understand the challenges and explore possible areas for further support,” said Ambassador Hallenborg. “As much as forfeiture and asset recovery can play a complementary role, it does not send a strong signal of wrongdoing. People will think that you can engage in corrupt behaviour and at most the proceeds of crime can be taken away but nothing else happens. I think the price to pay must be much much higher for corruption.”

And British High Commissioner to Zambia Nicholas Woolley said integrity is about doing the right thing when no one is looking.

He said the government needs to set the tone in the corruption fight but that everyone should play a role.

“Barely a week goes by without some scandal being revealed in the press or in some organisation, coming to the High Commission complaining about the issues of governance that they face. More needs to be done to tackle the scourge of corruption that is active in all walks of life. Government needs to set the tone but all of us have a role to play. Ethics and integrity means doing the right thing when no one is looking. Upholding your moral principles even when you could choose not to,” High Commissioner Woolley added.

“We recognise with the current cost of living challenges, it cannot be right that some people must pay the price for others’ personal gain. Corruption is a race to the bottom, a vicious cycle where the poorest and most vulnerable bear the greatest burden. But not everyone is doing the right thing when no one is looking. Barely a week goes by without some scandal being revealed in the press or in some organisation coming to the High Commission complaining about the issues of governance that they face.”

He added that Access to Information law means nothing “if it does not have teeth”.

“The new law if passed by the national assembly. and we hope it will be, means nothing if it doesn’t have teeth,” said High Commissioner Woolley.- The Mast

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