Malawi turning tragedy into opportunity- Michael Nevin the UK High Commissioner

The 9th December is International Anti-corruption Day. 10 December is International Human Rights Day. The theme in Malawi for the latter is free and fair 2014 elections. Is there a connection between the two days? I believe there is.

Firstly, no one should have to pay a bribe to access a service which is otherwise free. That is a RIGHT.

Secondly, no one should buy from voter’s their registration cards, no candidate or party agent should bribe voters or officials to influence the election, and state resources should not be used for partisan political purposes.  That is standard anti-corruption electoral practice in support of free and fair elections.

Recently in Malawi, there has been a welcome public discussion of whether “handouts” at political rallies should be banned. The thrust of the argument is that this is akin to buying electoral allegiance and is unhealthy for democracy. It can be seen as a form of corruption, or contributing to a culture of corruption. This has been recognised elsewhere in the world.

UK diplomat Nevin with new Malawi Justice Minister Fahan Assani at a meeting with President Joyce Banda where they were briefed on reform progress following the cashgate scandal

Bribery and Treating

Kenya (my previous posting) underwent significant constitutional and legislative change in the wake of the disputed 2008 elections. That included significant revision of the electoral laws. Part VI of Kenya’s 2011 Elections Act sets out election-related offences in detail. These include attempts to influence the vote through handouts or bribes. Notable is the inclusion of the offence of “treating” – influencing or rewarding voter behaviour by offering inducements which even include food, refreshments or other expenses. 

But that isn’t all. An offence is committed not only by those who offer inducements, but also those who accept them. Under article 62 (2) of Kenya’s Elections Act “a voter who accepts or takes any food, drink, refreshment, provision, any money or ticket…knowing that it is intended to influence them commits the offence of treating.” There are similar provisions for those who accept more lucrative bribes for their vote.

The Electoral Law in Kenya is saying that those who seek to influence through inducements and the voter who accepts their offerings carry responsibility for their actions. Stopping corruption therefore needs both the vote-seeker and the voter to play their part. Otherwise, a corrupt and distorted election can ensue, negating the people’s rights to a fair and credible election.

Malawians are debating the related issue of more transparent political campaign financing as means to prevent corruption.  Perhaps alongside this should be a debate about the people’s expectations of an MP.  I have been told that a prospective member of Parliament needs about MK10million to campaign effectively, much of it spent on “handouts”.

Then, once the candidate is elected, there are the constant requests to help constituents with education fees, funeral expenses etc. The MP therefore needs a source of supply beyond his or her income to meet this demand. The risk is that these demands from constituents, coupled with the lack of transparency over campaign funds, feeds corruption.

Cashgate’s Opportunity

Of course, that is not the only risk, cause or explanation for corruption. But perhaps, in this “Cashgate era”, the relationship between elections and corruption can be included in considerations of how Malawi can address the culture of fraud and corruption.

Cashgate can be an opportunity to introduce broad and fundamental anti-corruption measures that also help to uphold and reinforce democratic principles around Malawi’s elections. Malawi can become a beacon of good practice in the region.

So Cashgate does not only have to be about radically improving the government’s financial management system. It can also include measures to regulate political campaigning and prevent the abuse or misuse of state resources or state organs. It can include legislative and even constitutional reform to strengthen the impact of Malawi’s accountability institutions, alongside adequate funding. It can include greater access to information, including editorial liberalisation of MBC. It might also include public sector reform that protects public servants from undue political or commercial influence and incentivises performance, while increasing accountability.

That is the breadth of opportunity that Cashgate presents.   It can lift the fight against fraud and corruption to a new level, while strengthening democratic rights.

The question is: Will the opportunity  be taken?

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Michael Nevin is the  British High Commissioner in Lilongwe. The article was emailed to Nyasa Times by his office.

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