Malawi ‘grand corruption’ a history for the future

The forensic audit conducted by the RSM Risk Assurance Services LLP of the United Kingdom covering the period 2009 to 20114  has handed 13 cases files to the Auditor General for onward transmission to the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) but wants further work on 38 of the 50 cases the firm examined.

Looting took place under their watch: Late Bingu (L), Banda (C) and Mutharika Looting took place under their watch: Late Bingu (L), Banda (C) and Mutharika - Photo credit The Nation

Looting took place under their watch: Late Bingu (L), Banda (C) and Mutharika Looting took place under their watch: Late Bingu (L), Banda (C) and Mutharika – Photo credit The Nation

“Businesses and transactions selected do not indicate guilt or innocence but merely provide possible warning signs of fraud,” the report says.

Malawi’s self-enriching officials need to know they will be judged not just by an imperfect judicial system, but by generation upon future generation of their compatriots.

Nyasa Times reproduces below an abridged verison of  Nick Wright article in Africa Arguments on Malawi ‘cashgate’ affair.

A history for the future

As the full scale of Cashgate emerges, it is provoking some wider reflections in Malawi on national identity and public responsibility. The scandal saw officials use their public office to enrich themselves massively, but this phenomenon is far from unique in the country as the record of its presidents shows.

Starting with Hastings Banda, an investigation found that he had accumulated at least $320 million in personal assets while in office. His successor Bakili Muluzi, who ruled from 1994 to 2004, had been a small-time businessman but also lived in great opulence as president. He faced corruption charges after stepping down, but as a Commonwealth special envoy, he is now supping with the notorious king of Swaziland and his teenage wives. His prosecution for financial wrongdoing is losing momentum, while his son, Atupele, is a cabinet minister in Peter Mutharika’s government.

The next man, Bingu wa Mutharika, commissioned a vast private palace while in the top job. Located in Thyolo and built for Bingu by a grateful Portuguese roads-contractor Mota Engil, the residence towers like a stranded white whale over the neighbouring houses of poor tea-estate workers. Brother Peter inherited the property.

Meanwhile, Joyce Banda, who completed a brief term from 2012 to 2014, now spends all her time in voluntary exile, feted by the international community but refusing to answer questions in Malawian courts about the disappearance of 24 billion kwacha ($43 million) during a mere six months of her presidency between April and September of 2013.

Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, is now being described as a kleptocracy in some circles, and international aid is drying up. The contrast between the lives of the majority of the population and elites caught with suitcases of stolen government money – not to mention those who successfully enriched themselves over years in power – are as clear to see as ever.

Malawians are now awaiting details of the latest scandal to emerge, but as they do, a deeper question is also being asked: Namely, while the country’s political leaders do not seem to fear the judicial system enough to deter them from fraud, why do they also not fear the judgement of posterity?

One possible answer to this is that Malawi’s leaders have little sense of history and their own place in it. Of course in order to tackle a culture of impunity, the country’s institutions will have to be strengthened in various ways. But at the same time, perhaps Malawian academics also need to be invited, as a matter of urgency, to write a new History of Modern Malawi – a history that will give the country’s leaders a sense of posterity to which they will one day be answerable.

A sense of the modern history of the country is lacking in Malawi, and although a new understanding of this history would not end impunity or high-level fraud, it might help create a sense of unity and highlight the fact that Malawi’s leaders are accountable to their people and their country not just now but forever more. It would remind those that might be tempted to enrich themselves to the detriment of their country that they will be judged not just by Malawi’s imperfect judicial system, but by generation upon future generation of their compatriot.

  • Nick Wright is the former Malawi correspondent for Africa Confidential and was previously a history lecturer at the University of Adelaide.
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6 thoughts on “Malawi ‘grand corruption’ a history for the future”

  1. Ndata says:

    Those presidents will be remembered as wrathful thieves with no heart at all, particurlarly the Mutharikas.

    At least history could pity Bakili and aMayi as uneducated, Kamuzu – because he had no opposition and no one to learn from. But the Mutharikas no.

    How does it pride one to have a palace built on stollen money in the midst of poverty stricken village like Ndata. I think the Mutharikas hearts are not human but those of wild animals.

  2. Thitherward says:

    Please correct me if I am wrong but, as far as I know, there has never been a time in the history of this part of Africa when the powerful have not exploited, robbed and victimized the poor.

    Before the arrival of the British, the aNgoni and other powerful African nations would attack the weaker, more sedentary groups, killing the men and many of the women and children, enslaving the rest, and laying waste to their homes and gardens. Thus, traditionally, we either abused, or were abused, by military might.

    When the British administration was imposed, they stole most of the land and distributed it to the British Crown and British settlers. They welcomed Lhomwe-speaking aNguru immigrants from Mozambique because they were easier to control as they depended on the British giving them other people’s land. Moreover, they did not object so vociferously to the imposition of thangata – periods of forced labor. In other words, the British stole the land, then sold it to others who paid for it with their labor. This was clearly an abuse of military, administrative, economic, technological, religious – and just about any other form of power than we can think of.

    Mr Wright takes up the sad story of corruption and abuse at this point – independence – but it really begins much earlier. The people of this region have never known just and honest leadership. No model from our past can be raised above our heads and pointed at as an example of what we should aspire to. In this situation, we are called upon to begin a new and glorious chapter of our history. We are called upon to be
    great. What could be more challenging or more rewarding? [And what words could be easier to say, but harder to put into practice?]

    If we are still a sincerely religious nation, perhaps we can pray for God to reveal His greatness in us. If we are not, the judgment of posterity will make a poor substitute for the rewards and punishments of the afterlife, especially in a world which is rapidly losing its reading culture – a world in which word-of-mouth is as likely to spread spin, gossip, rumor and lie, as it is to convey the truth.

    O tempora! O mores!

  3. ngalamayi says:

    Being told that these leaders will face justice in the future is of no interest or consolation to those battling just to find today’s food, medical help. Is it so surprising that corruption in Malawi is at its worst in living memory? Those with the opportunity to benefit illegally from their vulnerable brethren will look at these leaders and can’t be blamed for thinking: ‘If my leader does it, it must be OK… and I have no choice, anyway’. JUSTICE MUST RULE TODAY,not maybe sometime in the future.

  4. Oikonda DPP says:

    Akuti Peter akuba kwambiri kuposa ma president onse akale eish.

  5. Mwananyanian says:

    The last paragraph contains important but only soft deterrents, for majority of people on this planet, Mr Nick Wright.
    Examples of moral stewardship for poor nations: Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, and perhaps Julius Nyerere. I’m not sure if morality can be acquired by leaning, or one is born with it, but the two Africans seem to have monopolized morality, frugality, fairness, foresightedness on this Continent.
    One should wonder if, for Gandhi, Mandela and Nyerere, the material suffering – poverty – of their people did not feature prominently in most of their dreams (in sleep, I mean).
    Most human beings, and Malawians are no exception, respond to punishment here and now as a deterrent. Not in some imaginary future, when the perpetrator is long dead. It’s not realistic, unfortunately, to expect very poor Malawians to ignore their existential reality and focus on the distant future. The typical Malawian is concerned about the theft of public money, but she/he has no resources to fight the battle: every hour is primarily concerned with “where is my next meal coming from?”
    The only solution is to strengthen the Courts, so that potential politician kleptos know criminal consequences are not only possible, but probable. This is what works elsewhere, so let us not re-invent the wheel, so to speak.
    Like with other problems, there may be other solutions. But I am not paid to work on that.

  6. Ntchona says:

    Africa is the only place where leaders don’t even consider resigning when a scandal breaks during their rule. God is watching. Who doesn’t know the breed of leaders Malawi has had is a simple list of gangsters that has included women. Stealing from us because they clearly know they will be no consequences. Most government ministers are rich not because they work hard but because they are common thieves.

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