Malawi fires labour minister, arrests officials over misuse of COVID funds

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BLANTYRE (Reuters) - Fourteen people, including senior officials, have been arrested in Malawi and Labour Minister Ken Kandodo has been sacked over misuse of COVID-19 funds, President Lazarus Chakwera and police said on Sunday.

Chakwera said in a televised address he had commissioned an audit into how 6.2 billion Malawian kwacha ($7.95 million) intended for the country's coronavirus response programme had been spent, and that this had identified that funds had vanished, been misused and left idle.

"As I speak, over a dozen individuals suspected of committing the crimes exposed by this audit report have been arrested," he said, adding this included an arrest at the office of the president and cabinet.

"There are no sacred cows," Chakwera said. "If the finger of evidence points to you... you are going to prison."

Kandodo had used 613,000 kwacha worth of COVID-19 funds for a foreign trip, Chakwera said, adding that even though he had since repaid the money his actions meant it was not available for its intended purpose when it was needed.

Kandodo told Reuters he was shocked by the decision but declined to comment further until Monday.

Chakwera promised to curb corruption when he took office in June last year, bringing his Malawi Congress Party out of opposition for the first time in 26 years.

He said there would be more arrests related to the audit, that civil servants would be made to repay stolen funds and that he would commission further audits into coronavirus-related spending and the use of funds in other areas like infrastructure.

Malawi's police said a total of 14 people had been arrested so far, including an immigration official and 10 individuals working at district councils.

More arrests were imminent, the statement continued, adding the suspects would be charged with crimes including theft by a public servant.

($1 = 779.4900 kwacha)

(Reporting by Frank Phiri, Writing by Emma Rumney; Editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)