LUSAKA, May 28 (Reuters) - The Netherlands and Sweden have frozen $33 million in aid for Zambia’s fight against HIV/AIDS and other health programmes because of official corruption, ministers said on Thursday.
Finance Minister Situmbeko Musokotwane and Health Minister Kapembwa Simbao told a news conference the decision was made after it emerged that senior health ministry officials had stolen $2 million.
"The total sum of money withheld is $33 million out of a total donor support of $120 million for the whole of 2009. The government deeply regrets the suspension of money for a sector that assists the poorest of the poor," Musokotwane said. The freeze will mainly affect health programmes in rural areas.
Zambia has vowed to stamp out corruption, in a programme closely watched by donors.
State media reported that 20 senior officials in the ministry of health had been suspended and barred from entering their offices to prevent them from tampering with evidence.
Zambian President Rupiah Banda’s office said the funds were stolen through a syndicate of payments to companies that were registered to deliver goods and services to the ministry of health but failed to do so.
Civic groups and opposition leaders accuse Banda of taking a low-key approach to fighting corruption. His late predecessor Levy Mwanawasa earned praise from Western donors for his anti-corruption efforts.
Treasury statistics show that one in every five Zambians carries the HIV virus or has full blown AIDS in a country of 12 million people, and malaria kills thousands of people a year.
"With the delay in funding, we will have a shortfall of 24 billion kwacha ($5.2 million) each month and this will mostly affect rural districts, which receive 16 billion of this money. Most of this money goes to hospitals and you can see how difficult it will be for patients," Simbao said.
"Various programmes such as HIV/AIDS and malaria will be affected by this suspension in funding," he added. (Reporting By Shapi Shacinda; editing by Andrew Roche)