Beyond Cashgate scandal in Malawi: Tenthani’s Muckracking

“Religion is what keeps
the poor  from murdering the rich”
Napoleon Bonaparte

Imagine we have locked up all the ‘bad’ guys and dolls and we have tossed their cell keys into the deepest points in Lake Malawi. Imagine we have seized all those ‘paradise-on-earth’ cashgate mansions and limousines.

Imagine Joyce Banda has fallen on her sword and we have sworn in a new – supposedly clean – guy in Kamuzu Palace.

So what? Will this mean we have solved cashgate, the worst financial scandal to rock the Warm Heart of Africa in its half century of existence? Will it mean we have cleaned up the system? Will it mean public money is safe now that cashgate is consigned to history?

No, not according to one Goodall Gondwe. It is the opinion of the good economics sage that cashgate is Joyce Banda’s invention; we have always had corruption amidst us, he says. To him cashgate is abhorrent, corruption is tolerable.

I am not sure whether age is catching up on the good ol’ fella or he is just being brutally frank. But, you see, there is some sense in good ol’ Goodall’s nonsense.

How do I mean? Look, if truth be told, the difference between corruption and cashgate is that the latter is carelessness while the former is subtle.

In corruption I may say: “Hey dude, I give you this US $100,000,000 road project and I get a 10 percent cut.” Fair and square, the road is done (never mind how shoddy the workmanship will turn out to be), the donor who funds the project is happy, the contractor is happy, the people are happy and I am happy.

While as in cashgate, if I skim K2bn from Ifmis nobody benefits apart from me and my associates.

According to good ol’ Goodall, corruption is a lesser evil. I am not sure about that because, while cashgate is pure theft, corruption is also theft albeit complicated.

Cashgate, to be brutally frank, is easy to deal with. It only took three (some say four) bullets to unravel it. Since an attempt was made on the life of former Budget Director Paul Mphwiyo suddenly ill-gotten money started showing up in impossible places…in car boot, under beds, in pillow cases, even stuffed in baby dolls for crying out loud!

If the justice system is allowed to operate without hindrance, we should get to the bottom of it easily.

But, on the other hand, corruption is a different ball-game altogether. Fahad Assani, in his other life as chief prosecutor, famously said 30 percent of our annual budget is lost through theft, fraud and corruption.

Do a quick check and tell me how many we have locked up for theft of public money and fraud and how many we have nailed for corruption.

I can hazard a guess that we have a legion languishing in jail for theft and fraud while nobody is in for major league corruption. It was pure greed, if not stupidity, that saw Yufuf Mwawa going to jail for  funding a wedding with public funds while Sam Mpasu was just unfortunate to do time for that Fieldyork deal.

The system never catches up with the real corrupt kingpins. They laugh their way to the banks while laughing at our poverty. You know them; one guy skimmed from the system enough money to fund the obscenely expensive farm-input subsidy programme twice over.

Perhaps as a nation we should take the conversation further. We are 50 years old this year but what do we have to show for it? Cashgate must show us that it is a misclassification to label us poor. Imagine the Chinese built for us a state of the art university, never mind some greedy fella planted it on his farm, but we are failing to operationalise it because we do not have K2bn to furnish it. And yet one guy privatised K2bn of public money.

If all the billions that were skimmed from Ifmis by a few selfish individuals and the billions more we lose through corruption were saved, would we need donors to buy us drugs in our hospitals? If a few people were able to pilfer those billions, it certainly means we have the resources only that they are being misapplied.

They say you are not a thief until you are caught with your hand in the cookie jar. (Joyce Banda took the analogy to another level by saying you are not culpable of any crime if you benefit from proceeds of theft!) Surely the 70 people that have been caught so far in connection with cashgate are not the only ones. There could be more out there living big on proceeds of cashgate.

Imagine we had managers at Capital Hill who were able to seal all the loopholes.

Public money is plundered not necessarily because of a porous public finance management system. It is the ‘me, myself and I’ syndrome that is at fault. Imagine if the guy who paid himself K2 billion for goods and services not rendered stopped to think what K2 billion can do to 3,000 young men and women who are queuing for public university places but cannot find space because government is failing to fund public universities.

We can hand long jail terms to the cashgaters we have managed to nail but that may not solve the problem. We need an overhaul of our Malawian-ness if we have to find a lasting solution to cashgate and its elder cousin, corruption.

At 50 we should have weaned ourselves from donor dependence. Surely very soon donors will give up on us. We generate enough money to go around but we are not directing our resources where we should. Surely we should not be singing ‘Hallelujah!’ when the IMF releases a measly US $20 billion to us.

*This article appeared in the Sunday Times newspaper

Raphael Tenthani: Muckracking columnist

Raphael Tenthani: Muckracking columnist

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