With a score of 33, Zambia may be a significant decliner on the 2020 Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI), dropping 5 points since 2013. Corruption is endemic in Zambia and affects people’s access to essential public services. According to the Global Corruption Barometer – Africa 2019, nearly one in five Zambian citizens paid bribes to receive services like health care or education.
But if there ever was a case that brings home the painful reality of the dangers of corruption in Zambia, it is the scandal surrounding the Ministry of Health’s negligent procurement that has put many citizens in danger .Alleged US$17 million scam In June 2020, Zambian investigative journalists broke a story about alleged irregularities during a US$17 million procurement of health kits the year before.
Journalists found that the winning company, Honey Bee Pharmacy Limited, wasn’t even registered at the time of contract’s award.
Previously, our analysis had shown that the gaps existing in the Ministry of Health’s handling of the COVID-19 donations were a potential conduit for corruption. Perturbed by new revelations surrounding an equivalent Ministry, Transparency International Zambia called upon the Auditor General to research possible misconduct.
Since then, more evidence has come to light, as the Auditor General and the Anti-Corruption Commission have pursued journalists’ findings.
Most alarmingly, laboratory tests have shown that the supplied equipment was substandard and unsafe to use. As revealed to the Public Accounts Committee of the Parliament in early January 2021, the Ministry of Health allegedly went ahead to distribute unsafe medical supplies to the public even if they knew that they weren’t safe.
These revelations – provided they are true – defy belief whichever way one looks at this multi-layered case. The ministry tasked with ensuring health of citizens exposes those very citizens to health risks. A government body goes out of its way to facilitate an award of a pharmaceutical licence to a company that fails to meet the set requirements. And another government body allows distribution of medical supplies with the knowledge they were not safe for human consumption to an unsuspecting public.
Litmus test for the government This scandal has tested the Zambian government – at the very top – on their commitment to fighting corruption.
While President Edgar Lungu generally says the right things in public when it comes to fighting corruption, his actions – or rather inaction – fail to match the rhetoric.
Despite damning evidence, the government did not seem too keen to launch investigations into possible corruption, nor seek accountability for the negligence of epic scale. That is why we urged the President to require action, like to suspend the Minister of Health and to mandate an independent investigation. We received a passionate rebuttal from President Lungu. He ultimately backtracked his position a couple of days later by firing the Minister of Health. While we welcomed the move as a crucial initiative , we are still urging for more action to follow.
Election is coming
The Ministry of Health scandal is symptomatic of the endemic nature of corruption in today’s Zambia – particularly in the area of public procurement – and of the devastating dangers it poses not just to the expansion of the economy but to the very lives of citizens.
This year, Zambia will hold a election , which presents a chance to place the spotlight on corruption and make it a key electoral issue. The Ministry of Health scandal has generated public interest that ought to prompt aspiring political parties and candidates to form commitments and provides their respective roadmaps for a way they’re going to fight corruption – not just in the Ministry of Health but public sector, in general.