Days of almost deafening silence have passed since George Thapatula Chaponda – a.k.a. Bulldozer – was relieved of his duties, pending further investigations into his alleged involvement in the procurement of relief maize from neighboring Zambia. Mr. Chaponda is joined by others in Malawi and Zambia on whom the probe will not spare asking some questions. For Malawi, a country whose courts continue to be rocked by unending series of gigantic graft cases, the possible conviction of a highly revered Minister in the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) government may be the highest test about our readiness to deal with corruption. And it may be the game-changer we have been looking for.
Our article of 20 February 2017 applauded the citizens and institutions that stood their ground to ensure that the honorable Minister pinned his name to the misappropriation of resources by the parties that were entrusted with the procurement job. It appeared that, as we went to press, Malawians had scored yet an extra point in the revelation of Mr. Chaponda’s lack of trust for the country’s banking system and foreign exchange laws (more on this as you read on). Apparently the United Nations, Mr. Chaponda's employer at some point, issues his pension - only his pension - in hard currency, if going by the good man's very testimony is anything worth heeding. President Peter Mutharika was forced to bow down to the pressure and, in an unprecedented fashion, pointed to the door his biggest loyalist. Out of cabinet...out of "state" protection.
In this article, we believe that, although the people idolize the prospect, getting rid of Mr. Chaponda will not be easy. And certainly not easy for Mr. Mutharika.
The face value outlook is Mr. Mutharika is upholding his promise that he will spare no one, not even in his own camp, from probes and convictions related with corruption. And almost immediately, this empowered the normally perceived docile Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) to swiftly search Mr. Chaponda’s home, where shocking sums of money denominated in enviable currencies and amounts were found stashed. This turnout of events leaves Mr. Chaponda in the most awkward position to answer some difficult questions when some devil seemed to have already been on his tail with queries about a fire that gutted his office while he was under intense investigation for soliciting rents from one of Malawi’s worst humanitarian situations.
While the President demonstrates willingness to use his executive position to deal with corruption at all cost, he seems uninterested in letting go of Mr. Chaponda as his Vice President in the DPP, helping the face value politics rise to life. It confirms to Malawians Mr. Mutharika’s reluctance to permanently provide redress to the problem that has percolated through the ventricles of our public governance system and political parties alike. Left untouched in the Party, Mr. Chaponda remains an authority in the DPP who is, thanks to Malawi’s duality provision in the leadership system, where one can be MP and Cabinet Minister without controversy, able to command and provide direction to DPP lieutenants at Capital Hill and whose interactions with the Bulldozer are likely going unchecked. It is clear that drawing the line between Mr. Chaponda’s influence in the Party and that in the executive will not do much to render undisrupted the investigations our intelligence agencies are tasked with.
A few reasons can be conjectured about Mr. Mutharika’s reluctance to unleash himself from his most trusted friend. And they do not involve Mr. Mutharika’s belief that the Bulldozer is innocent. And rallying such utterances is dangerous at a time general elections are looming. In fact, a rebooted Reverend Chakwera of the Malawi Congress Party (MCP) has been cashing in on Mr. Mutharika’s incapability to act, taking advantage of the empty podium to tackle even issues that are irrelevant to addressing the maize procurement scandal.
One crucial reason is that, now more than ever, Mr. Mutharika must protect his friend for his relentless promise never to sink alone if he were found guilty. A sentiment that not only shows a careless attitude to governance on the part of Mr. Chaponda, but one that also admits guilt. For the record, this article sides with Mr. Chaponda and encourages such honesty to continue. This is because this stance should be sending shivers across the DPP government every time Mr. Chaponda’s mouth is feared to open.
Mr. Chaponda and ourselves convene around the notion that, from the inflation of numbers of vulnerable populations to the issuing of the cheques to procure the maize from Zambia, this would never have been the shrewdness of a handful of men and women. Our point of departure from Mr. Chaponda’s argument, though, is his claimed ignorance of the corruption cooking under his roof, and his consequential presumption of innocence. So, while Justice Anastasia Msosa’s Commission of Inquiry examined the blemishes in the operational arrangements that ensued following the actions of ADMARC, the MoAIW and Transgloble Produce with our friends across the Western border, there is an unstarted investigation in the Malawi Government system that needs eyes and ears of some highly suspecting individuals to look into.
Mr. Mutharika understands that letting loose curious eyes over the matter means risking the formulation of a new cabinet, and probably fielding new candidates for Parliament in by-elections where DPP casualties will occur. It adds to the admission of his weakness, and mostly that he erred in choosing his cadets, who eventually took turns to spin the wheels of a ship for which he thought he was captain.
Another nagging problem for Mr. Mutharika is the shift in focus from Mr. Chaponda’s role in the Maizegate to his own as President. And Mr. Mutharika gets hypothetically, for now, prosecuted on a number of accounts. The first of these is the one he is using to hang himself with, by letting the Bulldozer continue to undertake prominent Party duties, which we explained above. The other, however, is the suspicion that he, himself and/or the DPP, might have been enjoying the benefits that were coming out of the deliberate mishandling of the food commodity’s procurement process.
Whether Mr. Mutharika will act or opt not to act on Mr. Chaponda, the Maizegate scandal only promises to get nastier for him and for many others in his vicinity. The lessons that emanate from the trials under the Cashgate, a scandal that continues to expose his inability to act on those in his power circle, are still being gathered and signal how deliberate his government has been in protecting high-profile figures.
Malawians keenly anticipate his next set of actions as a measurement of his leadership. But, to justify his continued existence at Kamuzu Palace, it looks like Mr. Mutharika’s only option will preferably be one of remaining on the 'maybe' side of things to kill some time than otherwise.
And a prayer to keep Mr. Chaponda’s mouth closed may come in handy.