This post was written by A. Karim Sylla of the MaliLink Investigative Reporting Group. A longer version in French, featuring additional coverage of irregularities in public finance and high-level government appointments, appeared on 24 January in Bamako’s Le Républicain newspaper.
Malian government bureaucracy costs taxpayers dearly. More than half the state budget goes to civil service salaries and administrative expenses–buildings, motor pools, telecommunications, trips, supplies, etc. For every franc spent on public infrastructure, roads, or schools, another 1.37 francs is spent on the bureaucracy. From 2010 to 2017, the Malian budget more than doubled, from 1.1 trillion to 2.27 trillion CFA francs (about US$4.5 billion), an increase of 106% that yet had little impact on key sectors like education and health, or even the effectiveness of government services. But worse than its poor productivity, the Malian state sector has become a place where funds meant for public investment either disappear or are misspent. Through fraud and theft of public funds, a mafia has taken over the public sector.
And this goes back a long time. In its 2007 report, Mali’s Bureau du Vérificateur Général (BVG) or inspector general’s office singled out the Ministry of Urban Housing for its spending on household goods:
Average annual « food expenses » reaches 34 million francs. Add to that 500,000 francs for buying soap, cooking oil and cooking utensils, the purchase of 2645 cans of Nido powdered milk, and some 3 million francs to buy 141 bags of sugar. This department’s food costs are clearly excessive.
Why was the ministry buying cooking oil? Couldn’t that 34 million francs have been put to better use in the pediatrics department of Gabriel Touré Hospital? Civil servants buying themselves Nido milk with public funds while children die of malnutrition!
Fraud is now done in the open. According to the 2012 BVG report, in the Ministry of Mines:
Purchases made by the DFM [Direction des Finances et du Matériel] cannot be justified. For example, even though the department has only 23 HP printers, it purchased 813 ink cartridges worth for 52.29 million francs in just nine months. That quantity suggests that each printer used 4 cartridges per month. Moreover, some of the cartridges purchased did not match the type of printer used by the DFM.
Many BVG reports have come and gone, and nothing ever comes of them. Everyone blames everyone else; the executive branch accuses the judicial branch of foot dragging while the judiciary blames the executive or even the BVG. Meanwhile, fraud and corruption run rampant. The social fabric is indelibly stained to the point that nothing is shocking anymore, even at the highest levels of the state.
After a journalist asked whether it was normal for the family of Prime Minister Modibo Keita to get state-subsidized housing from a program designed to enable low- and middle-income households to gain access to new homes, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita claimed that the prime minister, after loyal and honest service as a civil servant truly deserved this “gift” (six villas in all: one each for his wife and five children).
The omnipresence of fraud gives it a whole new meaning in public affairs. Ordinary citizens accept it as the norm; the courts rarely intervene, even when the abuse is excessive. Nevertheless, the case of the telecommunications regulatory agency stands out and demands an explanation.
The Malian Telecommunications and Postal Regulation Authority (l’Autorité Malienne de Régulation des Télécommunications et Poste or AMRTP) is charged with managing and regulating telecommunications in Mali. It oversees application of government policy, guarantees competition and protects the interests of customers. It also enjoys fiscal autonomy, and its resources come mainly from a 2% tax on telecom companies. That’s a lot of money: AMRTP coffers held close to 46 billion FCFA in late 2015. And this being Mali, such a sum generated considerable envy.
Earlier last year, the AMRTP hosted a visit by the Contrôle Général des Services Publics–one of many agencies in charge of seeking out irregularities and violations of financial procedures. Auditors finished their report in June 2016. This document, of which we obtained a copy, exposed instances of fraud and graft during the period 2012-2015. Among the examples of the regulatory authority’s questionable expenses are the following:
- Organizing a summer camp abroad for the children of AMRTP personnel (cost: 494 million FCFA);
- Buying 227 iPads, 80 iPhones and 100 computers for ministers, presidential staff, the National Assembly, and AMRTP personnel (cost: 468 million FCFA)
- Communication expenses for the AMRTP’s administrative council (cost: 28 million FCFA)
How can the AMRTP spend 500 million francs on a children’s summer camp in a country where 43% of the population lives in total poverty, and where 2000 people die of malaria every year because they can’t afford a 500-franc dose of Maloxine? All told, the agency spent over a billion francs of public funds without justification.
The reports of various oversight agencies show that the Malian state is being looted in a multitude of ways. Euphemisms such as “irregularities,” “managerial errors,” “discrepancies,” “non-collection of fees,” etc. boil down to just one thing: a fraudulent system kept in place to enrich certain civil servants at state expense. Some civil servants’ greed knows no boundaries. The staff of the Ministry of Mines surely wins the prize for sheer brazenness in this regard (BVG 2012 report, p. 89):
With respect to vehicles, maintenance records show, for instance, that for a single repair job, 150 parts were installed on a single vehicle [including] 3 windshields, 3 oil filters, 3 air filters, 3 fuel filters, 4 front shocks and 4 rear shocks; 2 windshields, 4 front and 4 rear shocks, 2 radiators, 4 sets of motor brackets, 4 crankshafts, 4 fuel pumps and 6 headlights were installed on another. Such cases have become common and recurring.
Such effrontery may seem amusing, but it’s the root of the problem. Theft doesn’t even bother to escape oversight–since punishment never materializes–and concentrates on extracting maximum funds from state accounts. The 2014 BVG report (the last one published) includes examples like these:
- At the Roads Authority, some 11.8 billion francs simply disappeared, including 4 billion misallocated by a single individual (p. 106).
- 667 million francs disappeared from the Office de la Haute Vallée du Niger (OHVN), including 183 million stolen by the head of marketing (p. 118).
- At Gabriel Touré Hospital, the BVG found that the staff basically stole x-ray film worth 115 million francs; as a result of the shortage of x-ray film, the radiology unit stopped functioning for two weeks (p. 125).
- In all, 1.4 billion francs disappeared from Gabriel Touré Hospital accounts from 2011 to 2014. This sum is the equivalent of the combined budgets of the public hospitals of Ségou (Hôpital Nianankoro Fomba) and Kayes (Hôpital Fousseyni Daou).
- At the Centre International de Conférence de Bamako (CICB), where the controller set himself up as a bank teller for ministry of culture personnel, the public lost nearly 995 million francs (p. 131).
What future for Mali?
By our estimate, the Malian public lost 2.5 billion francs at the AMRTP alone with no outcry whatsoever. This is, alas, no isolated case; all government offices are involved. The problem lies in the very nature of civil service in Mali, where the least competent are named to strategic posts, not because of nepotism but to perpetuate chaos and facilitate fraud. Honest civil servants can never hold important positions for long. All Malians suffer from this problem caused by the few, the civil servants who haven’t grasped that a well-run Mali will benefit everyone, including them. The out-of-order hospital scanner affects everyone; the polluting car that nevertheless passes inspection worsens everyone’s respiratory problems; the poorly built road increases transport costs and the price of produce for all; the corrupt education sector undermines economic growth. We are all victims, and the damage is not only financial: we are witnessing the breakdown of society in which the extreme has become the norm.
The 2.27 trillion francs in Mali’s 2017 budget put the country at the forefront of the West African Economic and Monetary Union: only Côte d’Ivoire and Senegal spend more. Yet everything is lacking in Mali. Malians pay all sorts of taxes and fees just to support an administration that does not serve them. Despite the 106% rise in public spending from 2010 to 2017, can we truly claim to be better off? Slashing the budget by half would make it possible to lower the value-added tax from 18% to 9%, and everyone would live better except the bureaucrats who’ve grown accustomed to getting rich off the backs of peasants. The Malian taxpayer is the worst kind of sucker.
Postscript, 31 January: In a speech to his party this week, former prime minister Moussa Mara declared that “what weakens and handicaps [Mali] is, first, corruption, individualism and the unbridled quest for money…. Nobody is ashamed anymore of stealing, lying, or debasing oneself to get money or a position allowing one to get it.” Yet Mara’s party retains its position within the majority of President Keita, whose regime has done remarkably little to stem the tide of corruption described in Sylla’s article above. – Bruce Whitehouse