“There are lies, damned lies and statistics.” – Mark Twain.
Finance Minister Goodall Gondwe presented the budget in Parliament the other day. He says our budget will be K901 billion. He promises many things in his budget speech. The economy will grow by seven per cent, for instance. That’s a heck of a promise to make. Not many countries in the world enjoy that much economic growth these days. There is Angola. There is Rwanda. There is China. Maybe a few others. All those have a common denominator: they are probably at the best of their times.
The same cannot be said of us. We are at the worst of our times in recent memory, and here is why. Since 2010, our finances have been hemorrhaging. K92 billion vanished. Auditors told us so. That was the First Cashgate no one wants to talk about. It, after all, happened when Bingu wa Mutharika was President. When Peter Mutharika came in, the Auditor General made a suspicious remark. He, to the puzzle of everyone who wishes this country well, downplayed the K92 billion scandal as ‘a mere audit query.’ Donors were not amused, so they instituted their own investigation, the results of which are pending.
Then, when Mrs Joyce Banda took over after Bingu’s untimely death, the Second Cashgate took place on her watch. Some say K20 billion vanished, but it could be higher.
While the gushing wounds created by these two cashgate scandals are still fresh and hurting, news of the toxic assets of the Malawi Savings Bank emerged. Six billion kwacha, and counting. During the week we saw some glimmer of hope, when the Malawi Savings Bank advertised the assets of Mulli Brothers, who defaulted on a K5 billion loan.
Before the country began its victory lap, Mulli stepped forward and claimed that an injunction prevents the bank from auctioning his assets. So we’re back to where we started. Those toxic loans will be settled by our sweat and tears. The poor shall pay the little they have so that the rich should continue to live in luxury. That, after all, is what the government means when it says it will issue a ‘promissory note’ to pump money into the bank.
Then last week, we heard of the K50 billion tax evasion scandal at the Malawi Revenue Authority. A computer disappeared in mysterious circumstances. There is so far no indication that this matter is being treated as a crime against humanity. Because that is what it is, when such tax is evaded while the poor are dying in hospitals due to lack of medicine.
In the past twelve months, nature has also not been very kind. Floods have been devastating. Gondwe says K222 billion, or one-third of this year’s budget, is required for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the affected areas. This is money Malawi does not have.
In addition to all this, there is looming famine. Our Finance Minister says K13 billion will be spent on procuring maize this year.
So, we’re not at the best of times. It is puzzling, therefore, that our minister says, without telling us how, that our economy will grow by seven per cent. Short of cooking the statistics, how, exactly, does Mr Gondwe expect the economy to grow that much?
Earlier, Gondwe’s boss, President Mutharika, said he expected the economy to grow by 5.4 per cent. Even that sounded far too unrealistic. No wonder it was publicly questioned by experts. The Malawi Chamber of Commerce and Industry raised the small matter of K157 billion. This is the money our government owes the private sector. Gondwe has outlined a plan in his budget. This loan will be repaid, he says. But that complicates matters further for those telling us that the economy will grow by seven per cent.
So, let’s be realistic. Do not give the nation the feeling that somewhere somehow statistics will be cooked. We want real growth, not empty percentages.
Earth, receive an honoured guest
This columnist initially wanted to write an obituary, an ode to Raphael Tenthani. Many better placed individuals, however, have written about him. Dr Steve Sharra’s piece, In the Valley a Genius Rests, is probably among the most comprehensive of pieces. It can be read on his blog.
However, to honour Ralph’s memory, this columnist decided to continue Muckraking on Sunday. Nobody can replace Ralph. His style was inimitable. His courage was legendary. But it is possible to keep the candle burning.
We first met a few years ago, in Sportsman’s Bar at Mt Soche Hotel. It was as though we had known each other for decades. We spent many evenings together, parting only in the deep and dark hours of the night.
It was impressive to be in the company of such a well-read friend. Every opportunity he got he spent his money onThe Spectator, the New Yorker, the New York Times and The Guardian, among publications. The last time we met, he was happy to receive from this columnist a copy of The Atlantic which, he declared, instantly joined his list of favourites.
But now he is gone. As W.H. Auden says: Earth, receive an honoured guest. Raphael Tenthani will forever be missed.
- First published, as per tradition, in Sunday Times. Feedback: [email protected]).