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Zambia’s medical supply scandal makes anti-corruption a key electoral issue this year

Man wearing a surgical suit near a mirror

Photo by Piron Guillaume on Unsplash

Maurice K. Nyambe

Maurice K. Nyambe is Executive Director at Transparency International Zambia. Get in touch with him on mnyambe@tizambia.org.zm

With a score of 33, Zambia is 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 millions of citizens at risk.

Alleged US$17 million scam

In June 2020, Zambian investigative journalists broke a story about alleged irregularities in a US$17 million procurement of health kits the year before. Journalists found that the winning company, Honey Bee Pharmacy Limited, was not 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 the same Ministry, Transparency International Zambia called upon the Auditor General to investigate 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 were not 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.

Zambian president Edgar Chagwa Lungu at the opening ceremony of the Michael Chilufya Sata Hospital in Mpika, Zambia in April 2015

President Edgar Chagwa Lungu at the opening ceremony of the Michael Chilufya Sata Hospital in Mpika, Zambia, April 2015

Photo by Boris Mayer on Shutterstock

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 take action, such as to suspend the Minister of Health and to mandate an independent investigation.

No one is taking responsibility and leadership is conspicuously absent. How big a scandal is President Lungu waiting for to happen at the Ministry of Health before he takes action?
Reuben Lifuka President, Transparency International Zambia & Vice-Chair, Transparency International

We received a passionate rebuttal from President Lungu. He ultimately backtracked his position a few days later by firing the Minister of Health. While we welcomed the move as an important first step, 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 growth of the economy but to the very lives of citizens.

This year, Zambia will hold a general election, which presents an opportunity to put the spotlight on corruption and make it a key electoral issue. The Ministry of Health scandal has generated public interest that should prompt aspiring political parties and candidates to make commitments and give their respective roadmaps for how they will fight corruption – not just in the Ministry of Health but public sector, in general.

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