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A Friend Indeed: Maizegate under the Magnifying Glass

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

In our recent article on the maize procurement saga we all devoutly call Maizegate, we made a rather strong case that cast doubt in the ability of Malawi’s institutions to confirm the truth we all already knew. We underplayed the ability of President Mutharika to effectively deliver some satisfactory answers for Malawians. As the past week turned out, the very column we refer to was proven wrong on some level: the prediction that the Commission of Enquiry Mr. Mutharika put together would fail, which we thought would constitute yet another waste of precious resources as has been the routine by such Commissions in the past, was inaccurate. While the outcome proved every skeptic wrong, we think Mr. Mutharika himself must have been shocked as much as the rest of us.

All along, Malawians were right to demand an explanation from the Minister for Agriculture, Irrigation and Water Development (simply, MoAIW), George Chaponda. As much as Mr. Chaponda incensed as he tried to remove himself from the saga’s epicenter, the multi-billion Kwacha scandal stuck to him with such religious pledge. And when Mrs. Msosa, the Commission’s Chair, revealed the suspicions her findings raise on the good man, the picture on the loot became lucid that the story was denser than meets the eye. Now, any manner of good regard in which one may have even thinly held Mr. Mutharika in, two events of the past week confirm the actions of a man ready to defend a friend, or more than one friend, at whatever cost.

As Valentine’s Day progressed, Mr. Chaponda, deliberating in Parliament, was having his office furniture charred by a fire that swept…exclusively…the executive wing of the MoAIW. President Mutharika and his government reacted in a manner every government of its caliber would do to thwart further revelations. “Call it an accident” is how the government used its tax-sponsored authority to massage the matter to rest. Mr. Chaponda’s Chief Director Bright Kumwembe, speaking to MBC, was quick to identify the development as the public records’ worst tragedy. Mr. Kumwembe hardly signaled the fear for dear life, which a normal person immediately turns to, particularly at a time when anything corresponding to the maize procurement investigations is a formidable cause.

On this one, even the opposition that has commonly taken blame, sometimes for natural disasters, was judiciously spared of misgivings around foul play in any significant way.

But the pieces begin to gather in a fashion that enrages us as Malawians, and voters and taxpayers too, when one considers the chronology of events reminding us of how the same wing went ablaze during the reign of Charles Matabwa, a former Principle Secretary at the Ministry. Mr. Matabwa had also been facing some troubling corruption investigation back in the good old Bakili Muluzi days. It is worrying that the tricks history teaches us are becoming predictable with each passing scandal, passing on from Mr. Muluzi, to Joyce Banda, now to Mr. Mutharika.

But none other than the cabinet reshuffle of Thursday, 16 February, would send shockwaves to all those reeling to see the unfolding of events beyond the doom Mrs. Msosa’s file of findings spelt for Mr. Chaponda and his minions. In a move that was made to sound just as regular, the pretext of restructuring the civil service was thrown in to explain the changes. Let us turn to one crucial detail of Mr. Mutharika’s reshuffle. While all PSs were moved around, a major casualty is the axing of Ronald Mangani from the government’s Treasury.

Now, a little recap. Mr. Mangani is the man who commissioned the audit of the Malawi Electoral Commission in 2015 that caused noise on Malawi’s streets when it revealed the outrageous looting that was happening at the electoral body. More outrage followed when nothing seems to have materialized from the audit regarding the people involved in mismanagement of public resources. In other news, this is the man whose removal from the ST job would definitely make the recently deposed CEO of the Roads Authority a very relieved man. It is very hard for us to believe that this PS reshuffle is a matter of regular adjustments, when the safety of the elite from an imminent taste of prison bars is threatened by a man whose impartiality is the most sure thing to bet on.

And, at a time all the drama of Maizegate is revealing there was more action behind the scenes (say, when Transglobe also happened), Mr. Mangani’s departure from Treasury is surely making many people sigh with relief. One such man is coming in to fill Mr. Mangani’s shoes, who, for more reason than the mere opportunity to assist cover up the holes in Mr. Chaponda’s tell-tales, is celebrating to finally having made it to the real top. To be fair, we are not saying Ben Botolo does not have the competency to run the Ministry of Finance. In fact, Mr. Botolo is a seasoned civil servant who would have deserved everything to be big boss, for those who knew him in his days as Director of Monitoring and Evaluation in the then Ministry of Economic Planning and Development. But things changed when Bingu wa Mutharika started pawning him around, starting with locating him in an administrative position at the Ministry he now heads, and then sending him around to Energy and Economic Planning (where his role as PS-2 was excruciatingly shadowed by a powerful boss.)

The favoritism Mr. Botolo has enjoyed under the Mutharika regimes signifies treasure hunting for a man who could have used a little more power in the echelons of government, and who had found an open opportunity to do so under a government whose ethnic lineage aligns with his own. An important difference with Mr. Mangani, who also hails from a favored District, Chiradzulu, borders on readiness to stand up to ethical challenges. We stand to be corrected yet again, but we are confident to conjecture a lengthy process that will outline the rectification of the Maizegate saga, until Malawians head to the next election clouded with messages and handouts that the impending campaigns will bring forth. The deliberate mistakes that Mr. Botolo will have been allowed to make will find a way to some manner of justification. And like all high-profile cases on the land, Mr. Chaponda’s name, tagged to Maizegate, will become a distant memory.

But the government needs to also explain how replacing Mr. Mangani constitutes standard restructuring when his position is only being displaced by another warm body, whose relative competence is not quite guaranteed, nor have we proven Mr. Mangani’s limitations in continuing to manage the Treasury. The timing is also curious, particularly if perhaps - let us just suppose - Mr. Mangani excused himself from continuing his duties. One would need to be enlightened on what would have caused this break from service at a time when the probing of probably the largest food procurement scandal Malawi has ever known was underway.

The two phenomena do not look good on Mr. Mutharika’s administration. His hand in advancing the changes in his senior management, or his staying tightlipped from declaring action against the forces at play in his inner circle, beg of serious integrity on his part as a leader. There remains a sizeable question on his managerial judgement when he has failed to postpone taking such action until a time when the tide is calm and low.

And, as such, they leave little room for excusing his very involvement in the scandal.


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