Mozambique | The hundred thousand dollar workshops

When COVID 19 pandemic news started flooding TVs and social media, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke to his nation like a true statesman.

When COVID 19 pandemic news started flooding TVs and social media, South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa spoke to his nation like a true statesman. He did not, like Donald Trump in the United States, oscillate between denial and promoting untested medication. He ordered a lockdown, encouraged mask wearing and had isolation centres built in event halls. Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and even Congo introduced similar policies and programmes. Save for the crazy…

Illustration by Diana Ejaita


COVID budgets for the good life

Estacio Valoi

Cabo Delgado, 2021. Over 600,000 people, more than a quarter of the population, live in refugee camps, battling food and water shortages, mosquitoes, and disease. The Mozambican province has been under attack from violent militants, – Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo, or the local ‘Al Shabab,’ as residents call it –, since August last year. Humanitarian aid organisations like Doctors without Borders barely cope, especially now that the pandemic is spreading and people present with cough, fever and shortness of breath.  ‘We are seeing an increase in the number of cases with severe respiratory infections that we cannot identify as COVID, or some other infection, because there are no tests available (…)’, in the words of the organisations’ communications officer Amanda Furtado. ‘And some areas are so isolated that if we have a patient with severe symptoms, the nearest COVID hospital can be up to ten hours away by car’.

The nearest COVID hospital or treatment centre would be in Cabo Delgado’s capital, Pemba. But, unless you are connected, or agree to pay for what should be a free service, people here are sent away with a curt ‘the free tests are finished’.  Amade Abdul (name changed upon request), an inhabitant of Pemba, says he was lucky that his mother in law works at Pemba hospital. ‘At first the hospital lab technician did not want to use a test on me, saying that it ‘belonged to an adjacent private clinic’ and that I needed to go there (and presumably pay money, EV). I said I would not do that because I felt really ill. It’s only when my mother in law went to fetch another lab technician from upstairs that I got the test’.

Abdul feels fine now, he says, ‘but I have cousins and friends who are sick. They cannot get the test at the hospital and they don’t have the money to pay privately. They have come here but were told to go home. So they are at home, eating ginger biscuits’(1).

STREAMER They have come here for tests but were told to go home

A budget of US$ 670 million, paid for by Mozambique’s development partners -inter alia the IMF, the World Bank and the EU-, has been donated for emergency COVID 19 relief in the country’s eleven provinces. But we cannot find any goods or services brought to Cabo Delgado with that money. Two health centres and a COVID 19 testing lab were recently built and equipped in Pemba, but these have been the work of NGO’s: the health centre of 144 beds in nearby Muxara in the south of the capital has been built by Doctors without Borders together with the Red Cross. The director of Cabo Delgado’s main Pemba Hospital, Antonio Carvalho, confirms in an interview that the extra 32 beds and a lab that his hospital boasts ‘for COVID 19’ have been donated by oil and gas companies Total and Eni.

Provincial authorities

Hospital director Antonio Carvalho seems unaware even of the COVID aid budget’s existence. In an interview he laments the ‘scarcity’ of supplies such as masks and gloves and explains he has no idea how much in terms of material supplies his hospital is supposed to receive anyway. ‘There is a ‘provincial distribution plan’ but we don’t know what portion from that plan is allocated to the hospital’, he says. ‘We just receive some supplies on a monthly basis, which we sign slips for. For further information you should ask the provincial authorities’.

The provincial spokesperson for Cabo Delgado also seems unaware of any emergency COVID budget for the country, let alone this province. ‘We just have goods and services provided by developmental NGOs, like Doctors without Borders and the Red Cross’, says the spokesperson, Sumali Gilberto, in an email.  He mails again later: ‘Of course I am not well informed about health. Please engage with the relevant people’.

The relevant people – that would be provincial health minister Anastacia Lidimba. We would like to talk to her about a particular budget of US$ 2,39 million that, according to a financial report from the Ministry of Health, should have been made available to the provinces. It is not much, but surely Cabo Delgado should have received at least some of that? But Lidimba postpones interview after interview and in the end outright refuses to talk, saying that she needs ‘authorisation’, from the health department in Maputo, to do so. We approach the Health Ministry in Maputo a number of times, by email, phone and Whatsapp, but never hear back.

This is a pity. Because Anastacia Lidimba’s signature is on a contract for ten million, two hundred thousand Meticals, roughly US$ 172,000, for three COVID 19 training workshops, held sometime between July last year and now, at the Sarima Hotel in Pemba, Cabo Delgado. We have found this payment in the section ‘Cabo Delgado’ on a ‘Mapa de Empresas’ list of companies that have been contracted to provide goods and services in exchange for COVID funds. The total services contracted for Cabo Delgado amount to US$ 191,000, which corresponds to the share the province could have received from the provincial US$ 2,39 million COVID budget.

STREAMER The rest stayed with the provincial directorate

According to the company contracts list, US$ 191,000 for Cabo Delgado has been spent on the VIP Spar Supermercado (US$ 17,000) and petrol (US$ 2,000), besides the US$ 172,000 paid to the Sarima Hotel for the three workshops. ‘Oh but we did not receive all that money’, Anifa Gonzaque, Hotel Sarima’s manager, explains when we pass by to ask. ‘We only received twelve percent. The rest stayed with the provincial directorate’.

Twelve percent, over US$ 20,000, is still a lot of money for three workshops: according to the hotel’s price list, one workshop will be catered for 20,000 Meticals (US$ 340). ‘But we give them the full package for 30,000 Meticals, (US$ 500)’, says Gonzaque. ‘And it is a year long contract and the idea is that they just come and have workshops when they want’. She emphasises again that the hotel has come nowhere near the full amount of the US$ 172,000.

As far as we can establish, only provincial health director Anastacia Lidimba and perhaps a few colleagues know what has happened to that full amount. We send questions and wait for comment, again.

VIP Supermercado

That, except for Hotel Sarima, the VIP Supermercado and a certain petrol station, none of the US$ 670  million emergency COVID relief has reached those who need it in Mozambique’s tormented Cabo Delgado province is not really a surprise to citizens here. In this country one must be connected to ruling party networks to get any public service, like health; this has particularly always been the case in this resource-rich region. Cabo Delgado’s villages have experienced rough exploitation and plunder, dispossession and forced removals of farmers, fishermen and artisanal miners for decades now. Gemstones, wood, oil, fish stocks and wildlife have been appropriated by politicians, bureaucrats and ruling party officials; police and militias with guns and machetes have been unleashed on communities who stood in the way (2).

Indeed, this history is at the root of the current insurgency (3), even if the militants ideologically profess to be Islamic fundamentalists. The ‘local Al Shabab’ says in its propaganda that ‘Allah wants a society where we all share and live together in peace.’

STREAMER In the upper class suburbs, people are very happy

The reality of Cabo Delgado is literally thousands of miles away from the capital Maputo’s Sommerschield area where the upper classes live amid embassies, gelaterias and cocktail bars. The Polana Caniço Hospital is here, right between Julius Nyerere Avenue and the golf club. The clients who visited this hospital for COVID tests and, where necessary, treatment, are all very happy with the service they received here, headlines a recent article in the capital-based ‘Club of Mozambique’ newsletter (4). The funds required for this service have indeed come from the COVID 19 aid budget, as a recent report from Mozambique’s Ministry of Finance shows: Polana Caniço received no less than ten million US dollars to prepare this particular hospital to deal with the pandemic. It is the only hospital mentioned in the Ministry of Finance’s entire US$ 670 million COVID expenditure report.

For the rest, we learn from the same report, dated 31 March 2021, that by far the largest part of the received money, US$ 511 million, was allocated to make up for the deficit in the general state budget ‘because there is a risk of lower revenue as a result of the COVID 19 pandemic’, the document states. The report also shows that the amount dedicated to prevention and treatment of COVID 19 in the whole of Mozambique has been less than a quarter of this: US$ 113 million.

We could not trace most of the expenses of this budget, of which slightly less than half was received in kind (i.e. goods like tests and masks), but the ‘Mapa de Empresas’ contracted companies list shows where at least US$ 35 million went. Besides the US$ ten million that went straight to the Polana Caniço Hospital in Maputo, US$ 22 million was spent on a few dozen contracts for service providers elsewhere. On paper, the contracts were for medical equipment and construction or improvement of health facilities, but also for training events, jingles, commercials, airtime, hotels, workshops and catering, mostly in the capital Maputo. The list includes an event for the Ministry of Health in the city’s Hotel Atlantis, billed for US$ 170,000.

In the end, the countries’ ten other provinces got slightly over US$ 3 million altogether. This included the US$ 191,000 we found allocated to Cabo Delgado.

STREAMER An event in the Hotel Atlantis was billed at US$ 170,000

A closer look at the contracts in the provinces reveals that Cabo Delgado is no exception when it comes to the provinces. Outside Maputo, practically no health supplies were bought at all. Save for the construction of one health centre in Tete province for the equivalent of US$ 250,000, and several purchases of soap, all items are described as ‘lodgings,’ ‘food’ and/or ‘training workshops’, sometimes for health workers but most often for unidentified persons. The US$ 172,000, that we found spent on three workshops in Cabo Delgado pales in comparison to the ‘meals for officials’ billed at US$ 299,000, in Gaza province, as well as to the US$ 455 000, that went on ‘lodgings and food’, without any further description, in Nampula. (Compared to that expenditure, the item of US$ 2000 for three ‘training events’ in Zambezia province starts sounding like a really good deal.)

Budget support

General state budget padding by development partners is a regular occurrence in most African countries. Mozambican analysts concur that, although US$ 511 million for the state itself is a bit much when the entire COVID budget is US$ 670 million, the pandemic would certainly cause a dip in an already battered budget, and some general support would be in order. The extraordinarily large amount of padding does, however, raise the suspicion that in this country’s case the army could be one of the main recipients of such designated COVID funds. More especially, the army that is currently fighting an insurgency in Cabo Delgado.

The Ministry of Defense is certainly the department with the biggest deficit. In August last year an expenditure report from that Ministry (5) sounded the alarm in this respect: it had spent its entire US$ 168 million annual budget already in June that year, leaving a deficit of half that amount and nothing left to continue to fight the jihadi militias in the north. But in February and March 2021, months after receiving the COVID emergency budget from the donors, the ministry purchased several millions worth of new army helicopters, armoured vehicles and guns from South Africa (6).

In questions sent to the Finance Ministry, we asked to what department or departments in government the US$ 511 million ‘general budget support’ were allocated, and if Defense was one of the recipients. We specifically also asked questions about some minor items in the general support budget that seem to connect to the Cabo Delgado situation. For example, why, from a smaller budget for general ‘assistance to municipalities’, there is a provision of US$ 52,000 for the village of Mocimboa da Praia, which has been in the hands of the insurgents’ forces since last August? Surely, Mozambique is not handing COVID 19 emergency funds to terrorists?  Would it perhaps be used to try and take the town back from them?

Financial Ministry spokesman Alfredo Mutombene confirms that the defense budget has been ‘extended’ recently, through ‘internal reallocation’. He won’t say by how much, but the deficit of half of the 2020 annual budget, US$ 84 million, has -judging by the recent multimillion dollar purchases of weaponry- clearly been compensated for. For the rest, with regard to any of the used COVID funds, Mutombene says that ‘these are allocations, not monitored and evaluated funds. We’ll have to wait for the state internal audit and then the external audit of government expenditure before we can say how these moneys have been spent’. With regard to our questions about the health budget, he suggests we speak to the ‘relevant sectors’.

We will email and call the Ministry of Health, both centrally and in the province, still many times.  But neither provincial health director Anastacia Lidimba, she of the signature on the payment of US$ 172,000 for three workshops, nor central Health Ministry spokesman Nelson Belarmino ever respond.

A free test for fifty-five dollars

Back in Cabo Delgado, we buy a COVID test from the storage facility in Pemba hospital for 2,500 Meticals (US$ 55), a set of plastic gloves for thirty three dollar cents, a plastic oxygen mask for a dollar and a visor for fifty dollar cents. Just outside the hospital, the same items are for sale, for everyone to see. It is difficult to believe that director Antonio Carvalho, who told us that his ‘security guards and cameras never caught anyone’ stealing, never saw this. But who is surprised? Carvalho also never knew how many supplies were coming in or not. And if the Ministry of Health doesn’t care what happens in the provinces, why should he?

Later, we ask Amanda Furtado of Doctors without Borders if her organisation, in the absence of any COVID tests in the refugee camps, perhaps has asked the Mozambican government to help provide such health supplies. She responds in an email saying that the organisation must use ‘own supplies,’ even if, she also notes, it takes months for these supplies to arrive because of bureaucratic obstacles with importation. Asked if she doesn’t feel like protesting the disappearance of the government’s COVID moneys and goods, the response is curt: ‘We are a medical-humanitarian organisation and our activities are privately financed, independent and neutral MSF. (..) we cannot answer your question since it falls outside our area of specialisation’.


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