A Culture of Corruption

Image: Boston.com

Over a decade after the initial agreement was signed, the impacts of a Vt282 million European Union grant are still making themselves felt across the nation.

Not in a good way.

The so-called EDF9 grant was designed to fund a related series of projects to introduce small-scale power generation on the islands of Vanua Lava, Ambae and Malekula. The idea was to install village-scale power generators that ran on biofuel extracted from Copra.

Millions of euros later, the entire project was in a shambles. Power poles were defective, high-tension wire was left to rust in a field. Copra mills were never completed. Electrical generators proved unable to burn bio-fuel. Some ran briefly on diesel, then went silent.

According to people with detailed knowledge of the project, it was characterised by incompetence, cronyism and corrupt dealings from start to finish. The rot apparently went all the way to the top. Decisions to fundamentally change the project were made arbitrarily, without consultation, due process or sufficient documentation. According to the CoI report, they originated from the Prime Minister at the time, Sato Kilman, and possibly from Paul Telukluk, whose ministry originally controlled the project.

Section 14 of the report, titled Analysis of the Law, specifically cites the Leadership Code and the report recommends further investigation concerning possible breaches of the Act.

Virtually everyone involved was implicated in some way. Contractors allegedly issued multiple invoices for the same work or materials. Workers got paid per diems by multiple parties for the same days. People made unexplained, and apparently inexplicable, transfers and withdrawals of funds.

In one case, when it was decided that the funds should be placed in a term deposit in order to accrue interest in the short term, VT41.1 million was withdrawn from the original account, but only VT40 million was actually deposited. Overnight, VT 1.1 million simply disappeared.

The executive summary of the report cites a number of factors for the utter failure of this project. “Some of these factors include the incapacity of the Provincial Councils to administer and manage the funds, lack of expertise to regulate and control funds, lack of compliance with proper government and provincial accounting systems, lack of awareness of the project, lack of any check or audit system....”

As if that weren’t enough, the sentence concludes: “… and individuals who in our view, manipulated the project to gain access to the funds.”

Already, one of the people involved has been arrested and charged with misappropriation of public funds. Twenty other ‘persons’—in the legal sense; one of them is UNELCO—have been recommended for further investigation.

However damning these finding ultimately prove to be, we need to make something clear: Just because someone has been identified for further investigation doesn’t mean they’ve necessarily done wrong. As one commissioner explained, ‘they need to explain why they did what they did. There might be a perfectly reasonable explanation. There might not.’

And even if someone is proven to have done wrong, it’s clear from the findings that some people were merely incompetent, whereas others appear to have made a concerted effort to misuse the money.

One example: The Torba provincial council moved half the funds into their operational account without authorisation, and used several million vatu worth before anyone caught on. When commissioners arrived in Sola to conduct their investigation, they were met by a contrite delegation, who offered to repay the entire amount, beginning with VT500,000 on the spot.

Other misdeeds are harder to explain away. Family members being hired and paid from project funds. Payments made that were in some cases twice as much as was invoiced. Unauthorised, unaudited and unexplained transfers between provincial accounts and government accounts in Port Vila. Unexplained disbursements from those accounts with no explanation how the payments related to the work.

In one case, over VT 2.1 million in unexplained deposits were made between 2012 and 2016 to the personal account of one of the project’s administrators.

In April 2008, VT 61.8 million was withdrawn from the Saratamata Rural Electrification account. Three days later an even VT 61 million was deposited into a transfer account. What happened to the VT800,000 remainder? Nobody can explain.

Albert William, currently serving as Member of Parliament, was responsible for administering this project for a significant period. He is one of the people identified for further investigation. Many unexplained payments allegedly originated from his desk, according to the Commission report.

We need to be frank about this. There is every indication that a culture of incompetence and corruption inhabited every level of this project. According to some sources, the corruption extends beyond our own civil service. They suggest the stink goes further still up the chain.

Charlot Salwai’s government deserves to be applauded for pushing for answers. The commissioners faced obstruction, interference, uncooperative behaviour and evasiveness. But even with the incomplete picture this report paints, it’s clear the whole thing stinks.

The PM’s work is far from done. It’s not enough simply to understand what happened and learn what not to do. There needs to be an accounting. The 21 people and companies listed for investigation must be required to explain themselves, in court if necessary, and to face the consequences of their actions.

Anything less than that will only teach people that the lesson isn’t Don’t Do It; the lesson is Don’t Get Caught.

One commissioner said it perfectly: If they did wrong, they have to face justice.

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