A Zimbabwean health worker. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO
A Zimbabwean health worker. Picture: REUTERS/PHILIMON BULAWAYO

African countries have generally handled their coronavirus response better than many experts feared, except for one detail: managing corruption.

Kenya is the latest African nation to have its politics shaken by allegations of corruption in handing out pandemic-response contracts. It follows SA, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Uganda, which have all been rocked by scandals of their own.

Preliminary investigations show officials who have illicitly benefited largely adopted similar methods: awarding contracts to companies owned by relatives or friends to supply medical equipment and services to the state at inflated prices in exchange for kickbacks. The relaxation of tender and procurement rules as governments rushed to prepare health systems for an anticipated influx of patients made it easier for funds to be misappropriated.

“Our politicians are always looking for a chance to eat and it appears the pandemic provided a good opportunity to eat,” said Griffins Omwenga, a resident of the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, who works in marketing. “It is shameful to say the least.”

With probes ongoing in several countries, the extent of the plunder is still unknown, but is set to amount to hundreds of millions of dollars. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the World Health Organisation, articulated the public outrage that the profiteering has elicited in an online briefing last month.

“If health workers work without personal-protective equipment, we’re risking their lives and that also risks the lives of the people they serve,” said Tedros, a former Ethiopian health minister. “It’s criminal and it’s murder and it has to stop.”

Africa has had more than 1.2-million confirmed coronavirus cases so far, while more than 30,000 of those diagnosed with the disease have died, data from Johns Hopkins University show. Inadequate testing capacity on the world’s poorest continent means the actual tallies are likely far higher.

In SA, the authorities are investigating suspect contracts worth about R5.05bn with some awarded to companies established shortly after the outbreak of the disease and owned by high-profile politicians’ relatives. President Cyril Ramaphosa has likened those who had illicitly profited to hyenas and vowed to hold them account, but no-one has been convicted so far.

Virus-related contracts

In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta this week followed Ramaphosa’s lead in ordering details of all virus-related contracts to be published online after irregularities were uncovered at the Kenya Medical Supplies Authority.

In Zimbabwe, Obadiah Moyo was sacked as health minister in July after being charged in connection with the unlawful procurement of $75m worth of medical equipment. Virus-related scandals have also cost health officials in Botswana, Somalia and Uganda their jobs, and have implicated cabinet ministers in Malawi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

“African governments who engage in corruption on any given day were not likely to veer off course or suddenly become moral when it came to managing Covid-19 relief funds,” said Ronak Gopaldas, a director at Signal Risk, which advises companies in Africa. “In many of these countries, the institutional capacity was too weak and political culture too entrenched for this to change overnight, crisis or no crisis.”

Accusations that virus funds may have been misspent have not been confined to Africa. Poland’s health minister stepped down in August amid corruption allegations linked to medical-equipment procurement. British newspapers have also reported that three firms with links to ruling Conservative Party donors or members secured contracts to supply personal-protective equipment worth more than £180m.

There may be genuine reasons why spending controls may be too lax, including the need to take decisions and buy equipment quickly, but there is also a risk that corrupt officials and suppliers could exploit the situation and get away with it, said Liz David-Barrett, director of the Centre for the Study of Corruption at the University of Sussex in the UK.

“The difficult part about a crisis is that it is much harder to differentiate corrupt behaviour from the results of genuine mistakes and rushed decisions,” she said. “The most important thing a country can do is to make contracting transparent so that the people can still hold governments to account.”

Bloomberg

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