Mystery of Zambia’s Missing Meds

The Global Fund is an international organisation founded in 2002 to fight malaria, HIV/AIDS and TB, with the aid of donors such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Zambia, which has been a recipient of such grants since 2003, has a chequered history with the Fund. The Fund suspended its disbursements temporarily in 2010 because of undocumented spending of US$3.5 million as well as US$104, 130 embezzled by an accountant and sought to recover US$7 million from the Health Ministry in ‘unsupported and ineligible costs’. However, in 2011, the Fund itself was investigated for fraud amid accusations that the donations to developing countries were being consumed by corruption.

Charles Mafa. Image: Supplied

Yet, the more things change the more they stay the same. Between 2014 and 2016, over US$1 million-worth of HIV test kits, antiretrovirals, anti-malarial drugs and malaria rapid diagnostic test kits supplied by The Global Fund went missing from the Medical Stores Limited (MSL), the state owned company responsible for the storage and distribution of medical supplies for Zambia’s public health sector. The Health Ministry neither effectively investigated, nor reported the losses.

In April 2018, The Global Fund’s Office of the Inspector General released its investigation report, “Investigation of Global Fund Grants to the Republic of Zambia: Theft of Health Products from Medical Stores Limited”. It identified three areas of wrongdoing:

  • Theft;
  • Non-Compliance with grant agreement; and
  • Product issues.

The following month, in May 2018, the Minister of Health, Dr Chitalu Chilufya, announced that seven suspects had been apprehended, some of whom were MSL employees, as well as two Congolese nationals. In October of the same year, Dr Chilufya declared that investigations had escalated. However, no progress was made.

Then, on 22 May 2020, the Anti-Corruption Commission questioned Dr Chilufya over accusations of theft of more than K44 million from the Ministry he headed. Chilufya was arrested on 24 June on ‘four counts of possession of property reasonably suspected of being the proceeds of crime’.

Against this background, an officer investigating the missing medical supplies approached independent investigative newsroom Makanday in 2020. He was growing increasingly frustrated with his superiors interfering in the investigation. His information prompted Makanday’s veteran investigative journalist Charles Mafa to dig a little deeper. Mafa’s source leaked the list of names of the MSL workers suspended for their alleged involvement in the theft. By now, their number had swelled to 13, and none had been formally charged, as Mafa discovered. He explained how the investigation proceeded: “The first step was to understand the operations of MSL by interviewing insiders, reading reports of the Global Fund on their findings of the theft, and talking to police officers working on the case. Some of the workers of MSL did not want to be interviewed but others welcomed me.”

An added twist to the tale that Mafa unearthed was the “suicide” of a further two Medical Stores employees who had been arrested after a failed robbery at a MSL warehouse in 2017. Nothing more was heard about the two Congolese nationals.

Zambia’s $1m ARV Heist: Still No Answers was published on Makanday’s website on 5 August 2020. The story led to another investigation of how the Ministry of Health was mishandling the procurement of medicine.

The end result of the exposé by Makanday, and other local media who picked up the story, was that President Lungu fired Dr Chilufya on 10 January 2021. That same month, the Zambian government transferred US$900,000 (K18 million) to the Global Fund as reimbursement for non-compliant expenditure. The head of Medical Stores, Chikuta Mbewe, was dismissed in February 2021. To date, the mystery of the missing medical supplies remains unsolved.

Zambia’s $1m ARV heist: still no answers

Two years after the theft of HIV/Aids drugs and medical products worth over a million US dollars from government’s medical stores, investigations into the crime have not been concluded.

This is despite the medical stores providing a vehicle for the police to use and weekly fuel allocation to speed up investigations.

The slow pace of the inquiry has given rise to speculation that powerful Zambians have benefitted from the theft, and of interference in the police investigation.

The drugs, paid for by the Bill Gates-backed Global Fund to fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria, were meant to flow from state’s Medical Stores Limited (MSL) to Zambia’s poor, the main victims of HIV/Aids.

Mysteries also surrounds the “suicide” of two Medical Stores employees arrested after an abortive robbery at a warehouse operated by MSL in 2017. Nothing further has been heard about two Congolese allegedly arrested after the failed heist.

Makanday has established that 13 MSL employees are currently on suspension on half-pay in connection with the $1-million theft.

The 13, according to a well-placed police source, include a warehouse manager, two assistant managers (inventory and outbound), two dispatch officers, a forklift driver and a commodity security officer.

The suspended employees have been off work for almost a year.

They were facing a charge of theft that was later changed to fraud, said one of the suspended employees who chose to remain anonymous. “We were first suspended in June last year, and allowed back to work for about a month, then suspended again in July,” the employee said.

Neither police nor MSL management would comment on this claim.

The employee told the Makanday Centre for Investigative Journalism that an investigation into the massive theft at MSL started when 13 pallets of HIV testing kits went missing from the central warehouse in Lusaka in 2017.

A week later, gun-wielding robbers stormed another warehouse operated by MSL in Lusaka’s industrial area in broad daylight but were thwarted by the police.

In addition to the employees on suspension, two Congolese and three Zambian employees of MSL were arrested in connection with the theft.

The three Zambians were acquitted in court for lack of evidence and two of them were later found dead in mysterious circumstances on different dates but after they were acquitted. Sources from both the police and MSL confirmed the deaths which have never been investigated by the police.

Chibuye Mambwe, was found dead in Matero, north of Lusaka, away from his home township in Mutendere, while the other, a forklift driver only identified as Vincent, was found dead in a pit latrine at his home.

Nothing further has been said in public about them and there has been no further news about the arrested Congolese.

A query was sent to the Inspector General of police, Kakoma Kanganja, who has not yet responded to the questions sent to his office.

Kanganja has also not replied to questions about whether there is an investigation into the alleged suicide of the arrested Zambian robbers, and on the fate of their alleged Congolese accomplices.

Contacted for comment, MSL directed all queries to the Ministry of Health.

Asked about the investigation into the theft police spokeswoman Esther Mwata Katongo would only say that investigations are ongoing.

She did not comment on the long delay in bringing the inquiry to a conclusion.

In 2018, an investigation by the Global Fund revealed the theft of drugs and health products at MSL worth US$1.06 million over a two-year period.

The theft included 5 790 HIV test kits, 67 967 bottles of ARVs, 11 442 artemisinin-based combination therapy packs, and 2 521 malaria rapid-diagnostic test kits. (For full report see:

Although the assets started disappearing in November 2014, the Global Fund was not alerted until October 2016.

According to the July 2018 Global Fund newsletter, an investigation by the Office of the Inspector General was triggered by a series of reports of theft, starting in October 2016.

At that time the MSL informed the Global Fund secretariat that nine pallets of USAID-funded HIV test kits worth $250 000 had been stolen from MSL’s off-site warehouse.

Then, in April 2017 the Global Fund said its portfolio manager, who it did not name, was informed by the Inspector General that still more HIV test kits, funded by a different donor, (USIAD) had been stolen from MSL’s central warehouse in February that year.

The Inspector General opened an investigation that initially focused on all ten deliveries of HIV test kits to MSL, valued at US$5.6-million and funded by two Global Fund grants.

After discovering the HIV test kit losses, the Inspector General broadened its investigation, which concluded that internal controls at MSL were ineffective and presented multiple opportunities for theft.

It also found that documented operating procedures, including a biannual stock count stipulated in the standard operating procedure, were not followed, MSL had undertaken only one stock count each year in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

Because MSL’s buffer stocks prevented stockouts, and no weekly stock counts were conducted, the missing stocks were only identified during the annual stock takes.

The report identified three types of wrongdoing:  theft, non-compliance with the grant agreement, and product issues. The Global Fund did not specify which products they were referring to.

In their report, the Global Fund proposed to recover the amount in full, but Makanday could not establish from the government or Global Fund how much the Treasury has repaid.

Recently, Minister of Health, Dr Chitalu Chilufya installed a new eight-person MSL board, led by Mulalelo Kakulubelwa, the permanent secretary in the Ministry of Health as chairperson, and her deputy, James Kapesa.

One of its immediate tasks will be to resolve the mystery of the missing ARVs.

Chilufya is himself being probed by the country’s anti-corruption watchdog over allegations that he is in possession of property suspected of being proceeds of crime.

An investigation by South Africa’s Mail and Guardian newspaper indicates that the systematic theft of Zambian ARVs goes as far back as 2009, employing a complicated network operating in several countries.

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