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Commercialise state houses, urges Chikaonda

Former Finance Minister Professor Mathews Chikaonda has urged the government to commercialise some sections of the country’s six state houses, including the hill-top Sanjika Palace in Blantyre, to generate own income to maintain and run the edifices.

The 2012/13 national budget allocated K2 billion for maintaining the six state residences, a shift from K1.567 billion allocated for the same in the 2011/2012 financial year.

Malawi has the New State House, which for years housed Parliament, Mtunthama State Residence in Lilongwe, the lakeshore retreat Chikoko Bay at Monkey Bay in Mangochi, and State houses in Zomba and Mzuzu.

The late president Bingu wa Mutharika wanted to turn the Zomba State Residence into a hospital.

State President Joyce Banda, who came to power after the sudden death of Mutharika in April, has shot down the Chikaonda suggestion through her spokesperson, saying state residencies are restricted areas.

“By their very nature, they are not open to the public anyhow. Security is at a premium. Why should we turn them into community halls?” questioned Presidential Press Secretary Steve Nhlane in an interview with The Sunday Times.

Chikaonda said Malawi could borrow a leaf from the Czech Republic which has commercialised state residences where one section can be used by the presidency, while the other can be hired by private institutions.

“There is a section [of the State residences] that’s used by the presidency, which is completely sealed off and then a section that (members of the) public can use like the banqueting hall at Sanjika, for example. That is completely cut off, people just go there, companies can hire, institutions can hire and government makes money from the hiring of those halls,” said Chikaonda, CEO for conglomerate Press Corporation.

Chikaonda, who once served as Finance Minister during the Bakili Muluzi administration and introduced a 10-Point plan to cut on state expenditure, said funds generated could be used to run and maintain the same structures instead of relying on the budget through tax payers’ money.

“Again we would have to do a comprehensive study of what is feasible, [because] there are security concerns [to consider],” Chikaonda said.

The former Central Bank Governor also said a comprehensive review could also be carried out to ascertain how often the state residences are used, and the cost of maintaining them.

“We can do something about some of these, where may be the president may not even be there; I mean, like Zomba State Residence, I don’t know how frequently used it is. (We have) Mzuzu, Chikoko Bay and many other places that are there,” he said.

Nhlane, said even if one was to accept, in principle, to hire out the state banqueting halls for commercial purposes, the viability of such an idea looks very remote.

“The facilities would be too expensive given the high cost that would accrue from security issues,” argued Nhlane.

In other words, he said being located within the state residences makes it very inaccessible to the general public unless there is very special arrangement for security to be deployed, to screen patrons and man all other security points that need to be securely guarded when the banqueting halls are being used by members of the public.

“My gut feeling is that the security component would make the cost of hiring the facilities unattractive and therefore the whole idea untenable,” said Nhlane.

Out of the K2 billion national budget approval for the residences last year, about 10,274 per cent increase is for grass tendering and this translates into K120.51 million.

Chikaonda contends that all this money can be put to good use while the residences are fending for themselves.

“Some of the monies we can save from there would go to running hospitals for example, investing in schools and other things of that nature,” argued Chikaonda.

Plans to commerciliase the 100-room New State House in Lilongwe by turning it into a casino fizzled out after foreign investors were no longer interested in the idea.

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