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A Game of Weakening Institutions and Politics in Malawi

Updated: Jan 21, 2020

In the just past week, the folly of two newsworthy events does not just lie in the failure to prove the guilt of perpetrators of corruption. Rather, the concern that must engulf all Malawians is whether we have strong enough institutions that will address the democratic interest effectively. With the evolution of the Maizegate case into a state where neither George Thapatula “Bulldozer” Chaponda nor the Tayubs of Transglobe Produce have a credible case to answer, coupled with the Anti-Corruption Bureau's (ACB) announcement that no Cabinet Ministers are implicated in the Cashgate saga, the systems put in place to protect the rights of the common Malawian indicate cracks their ability to deliver justice. And, with just about a year to the general elections, these pronouncements could never have been timelier for our ruling elites.

For the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), this comes in as much-needed fodder to brandish the uprightness of its government, including a labelling of President Peter Mutharika as a ruthless impartial fighter of corruption that he could not spare his closest allies like the Bulldozer. For the opposition, this does not answer the question of government’s ability to curb corruption. With a little more scratching on the vice, they might well expose the wounds of Cashgate that scar the memories of many Malawians.

In 2018, Transparency International, the most reliable global observatory on corruption at the moment, ranks Malawi at 122 out of 180 countries for which the organization collects data. Historical trends show that this is the highest Malawi has ever reached since 1998. Unfortunately, this implies not just worsening nefariousness but a signal of the extent to which Malawian judicial and policing systems are coy to eliminate the malfeasance that has percolated our society with a passion. This website, then, finds much absurdity in Malawi’s claim that there is no senior-level meddling in the conspicuous diversion of billions of Kwachas from the public purse to personal pockets. Even more, the claim that such a heist could have been pulled off by a complex network of civil servants without the oversight of a few big wigs is nonsensical and Malawians would taken for gullible to be made to believe so.

The challenge that Malawi’s fight against corruption in 2018 will have to negotiate is the very institution that donor and taxpayer resources were used to set up in 1998, the ACB itself. Since its establishment, the ACB has been known to investigate several high-level cases that have not found any really high-level officials guilty of wrongdoing. The institution has merely been used as an exhibition by the governments of Bakili Muluzi, Bingu wa Mutharika, Joyce Banda and Perter Mutharika alike, of government’s commitment to addressing corruption. Nonetheless, it has not been one of actually addressing corruption.

Taking the maize procurement case where the Bulldozer’s centrality in suspected corruption was quite clear, it is also very lucid how Mr. Chaponda will likely not be taking any blame for the mismanagement of funds, or the potential of it, at the agriculture Ministry. As part of the ACB raid that ensued after the break of the scandal at the beginning of 2017 were large sums of foreign and local currencies hidden under a bed in the abode of the Bulldozer. And during the development of the Bulldozer’s case in court, government officials have gone on record to advance the line that a Blue Night raised all these monies that were intended for the DPP’s coffers. But while these resources are currently state evidence against Mr. Chaponda’s ill fate, and while the defense will tirelessly work to prove the money belongs to the DPP, it is unlikely to us that a future audit of the DPP’s will highlight that these resources will have been expended for Party errands.

The state has repeatedly shown weakness in propagating a strong position against corruption. The momentum with which the Maizegate investigation started dissipated with time and the non-renewal of contract of Lucas Kondowe, then ACB Director who was at the helm when initial investigations were done. Among Mr. Kondowe’s successor’s major preliminary undertakings has been the denouncing of the culpability of seven Ministers in Mr. Mutharika’s cabinet, in spite of Kamlepo Kalua’s incessant threats to call the Ministers out by name. For the record, we are all yet to hear from Mr. Kalua on this. And the ACB has not only pardoned the powerful. On 29 March 2018, Maxwell Namata was acquitted – by the Supreme Court – of several charges levied against him in money theft and laundering correlated with the Cashgate scandal. Although he still has some matters to answer, all that Mary Kachale, Malawi’s chief prosecutor, could do was request that Mr. Namata’s bail conditions be tough.

It is almost common sense, not just in Malawi, that government hardly wins court cases. Although a quick fact check will easily prove the tendency of government to lose a court contest even against those clearly in the wrong, it is delusional to reckon that the personnel that government employs to prosecute cases are incompetent. It is also naïve to believe that government holds too few resources to provide for adequate investigative work to credibly and efficiently prosecute important cases. If it were so, Mrs. Kachale would be out of employment. Yet it is vital to understand that the heavy hand of politics in these cases is an important explanatory factor in the cases’ impetuous conclusions that almost always exonerate the defendants.

In the run up to the 2014 general elections, the DPP said, when they needed our votes, that their main agenda was to fight corruption without fear nor favor. Mr. Mutharika’s inauguration speech was clad in promises that he would not shield any of his Ministers. He repeated this in cabinet meetings at Capital Hill. But at the time the Maizegate scandal was breaking, this website weighed some facts around politics and the carrot that Maizegate offered politicians and noted that Mr. Mutharika would do everything to protect a close friend. We quickly retracted this position when, to much national delight, Mr. Mutharika pushed the Bulldozer out of office and led the way to ACB investigations. What we had not foreseen was the long-term effect that politicians in Malawi have used to quell off the rebukes the public makes against them. We should have maintained our preliminary position, knowing it is about time that the DPP cleaned up house to pave way for a less rough campaign period.

This, however, does not neglect the continued weakening of the ACB and similar institutions designed to inculcate accountability in everyday governance. Formulated as independent bodies to act on overt attractions to, as well as more inert, corruption, these institutions have been extremely important in safeguarding democracy. They strengthen the role of government as much as the confidence of the electorate in the government machinery. This erosion of trust in government officials, and particularly in political leadership, brought by corruption implies a collapse in democratic principles that are supposed to sustain sound governance.

Without being too presumptuous, the two cases discussed in this article illustrate the potential accountability failure of those in positions of authority to protect the interests of Malawians. Reynek Matemba’s announcement of the innocence of the seven Ministers in Cashgate might very well be the end line of a gimmick whose purpose may be connected to May 2019.

Our parting thought: if Cashgate, Maizegate and their smaller siblings are the result of only civil and public servants, then perhaps the conjecture that leadership of these individuals and institutions is inept may still be palpable. Whichever way we look at corruption in Malawi, then, some bigger fish needs to answer.


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