Why no-one cares about Malawi’s biggest problem – Corruption

As corruption allegations unfold, Malawians are watching keenly but are not outraged or protesting.

This September marks three years since the high-level corruption scandal in which $31 million was stolen from government coffers began to be uncovered.

Legion of cashgate suspects

Legion of cashgate suspects

Since then, over 70 individuals – including high-level civil servants, private contractors and politicians – have been charged in connection with what has locally been dubbed the Cashgate scandal. Eleven people have so far been sentenced, while many cases – including that of former budget director Paul Mphwiyo whose attempted assassination first brought the revelations to light – are ongoing.

Over the past three years, Cashgate has become the main reference point for corruption in Malawi, but the problem of graft goes much wider and deeper. According to Malawi Economic Justice Network executive director, Madalitso Kubalasa, the country loses 30% of its public resources each year due to corruption.

The disappearance of such large sums of money would shake any country, but they are particularly significant for one of the world’s poorest nations. Furthermore, these scandals have added knock-on effects for the economy in terms of investor and donor confidence. After Cashgate emerged, for example, international donors – from which Malawi receives around 40% of its annual budget – suspended large sums of aid over fears it would be misdirected, leading to a budget crisis.

Corruption in Malawi is endemic. Its effects are devastating. And especially over the last three years, countless officials who are meant to be in office to serve the country have instead been exposed for enriching themselves at its expense.

However, while Malawians have been keenly watching these scandals unfold, there has been a curious lack of outrage. Malawian citizens are frustrated but, unlike some of their counterparts in the region, not to the extent that they are trying to force out their politicians, protesting for change, or demanding that graft is properly rooted out.

A history of corruption

The main reason for this lack of indignation is the fact that over the last two decades, corruption has become almost completely normalised in the country. Public money and resources are at the mercy of those in power, and it is expected that when a president is in power, his or her family and home region will benefit.  At least this has been the case under all four presidents since multi-party democracy was established in 1994.

For instance, Bakili Muluzi (1994-2004) has been in and out of court over the last decadeanswering charges of stealing $12 million while in power.

Bingu wa Mutharika (2004-2012) has come under strong suspicion for managing to amass a colossal $84 million in personal wealth during his time in office.

Joyce Banda (2012-2014), who has been absent from Malawi since she was voted out of office, has been accused of complicity or even an active role in Cashgate. In his sentencing, Oswald Lutepo, the most senior figure to be convicted so far, claimed he was used by Banda who he named as one of the beneficiaries of the scam. Meanwhile, Reyneck Matemba, Deputy Director of Malawi’s anti-graft body disclosed that they had been probing Banda “for some time now”.

And finally, the administration of current president Peter Mutharika – brother of former president Bingu, whose wealth his party has defended as legitimate – has also come under attack. Several of his cabinet ministers have reportedly been implicated in the Cashgate investigations and Mutharika has been accused of shielding them by refusing to name them. Furthermore, there have been growing allegations that Mutharika has been interfering in corruption cases and using his influence to shield his political allies.

As previously argued, one aspect of Malawi’s political structure that is crucial to corruption is the fact that power is so centralised. The state president is at the heart of everything, from the awarding of contracts to the appointment of board chairpersons and members, and this both encourages and allows patronage and impunity.

Keeping the status quo

Listening to Malawi’s former and current political leaders talk about corruption, one notices a general lack of remorse. They will talk about graft, willingly or otherwise, but when they do, they mostly seem to be trying to compete over who is the least corrupt amongst them.

Malawi’s leaders tend to insist that they are fighting corruption, but these pronunciations are rarely translated into meaningful action. Some small steps towards greater transparency may have been taken, but corruption remains the country’s biggestproblem in undermining efforts towards development.

The main culprit behind this endemic corruption is a materialistic and self-loathing culture among elites who are willing to get rich by any means necessary. For this group, joining politics has become the most convenient route to riches, and the phenomenon of seeing politicians getting rich overnight without being accountable for how they made this wealth has become commonplace.

Politicians in all Malawi’s current and former governments are culpable and/or implicated in these practices, meaning that no major party has a genuine interest in addressing the issue or decisively rooting it out. To do so would both harm itself and reduce its ability to self-enrich now or in the future. The status quo of impunity suits those in power and those who hope to win it back. And this theft of public resources is not only endemic, but over time has been normalised and even accepted.

This situation attracts yet more people into politics with the objective of profiting rather than serving their country, and today Malawi is divided between a minority of elite politicians living luxuriously and a majority struggling to make a living.

This is the ugly face of kleptocracies, which is what Malawi has become – a republic ruled by the rich, for the rich. The rest feel that they can only spectate, while the media is bullied into keeping quiet if it starts to make politicians feel too uncomfortable.

As the University of Malawi’s renowned Professor Blessings Chinsinga put it succinctly, “Efforts to root out corruption do not stick because the existing institutional milieu makes it almost impossible.”

  • Jimmy Kainja is a Malawian academic and sociopolitical blogger. The article appeared in African Arguments
Follow and Subscribe Nyasa TV :

Please share this Article if you like Email This Post Email This Post

More From Nyasatimes

More From the World

6 thoughts on “Why no-one cares about Malawi’s biggest problem – Corruption”

  1. Mpoto says:

    This is misdiagnosis. The biggest problem in Malawi is not corruption. It is bad president. Ever done problem analysis? Ask about cause and effect? Cause of bad leadership is voting along tribal lines, itself caused by illiteracy. Effect of bad leadership is corruption, etc. Malawians must face the truth. The problems of Malawi are begotten by bad presidents, no less, no more.

  2. Khima says:

    Choyamba: dziko ili ndi free for all palibe ali ndi mantha kuti ndikaba olo ndikalandila ziphuphuzi ndikumana ndi zilango. Tsoka iwo amaba ndikumangidwa. Chichiwiri: Zikuoneka kuti a Malawi tazolowela kuti chinachake chitheke tihonge munthu, komanso sitidziwa what it takes to have the whole process completed. For example kuti ndipange passport, license whatever government paper olo kuti payment itheke timaona ngati kupanda kumupasa wina wake ndalama sizingatheke. Nkhani ndi iyi tilibe systems that control and monitor processes. We must have systems that dont give a human being a chance to think the way he/she likes. Good example are the changes at RTD (big up Zomba branch staff) and Immigration, for the first time ndaonako process kuyamba ndikumalizidwa popanda kufuna favours from anyone. So thus the way to go paliponse pakhale a well scrutinized process that easily be monitored. Where possible invest in process systems sikuti corroption and theft zingatheletu koma anthu adzayamba kuopa..

  3. Emeneka says:

    How do you define corruption? It would seem we are confusing corruption with fraud and theft. Yes people are stealing but can we justify the figure 30% is stolen?

    Dont blame politicians because we all know what they want. How can corruption end when you pay a Cabinet Minister a gross salary of MK800,000 per month? As if this is not bad, DPP asks ministers to conduct meetings without giving them any resources. Where does the party expect these people to get resources from? The result is an alliance between ministers and civil servants.

    Lets not get emotional but examine issues with soberness. If you dont adequately remunerate your public servants they will steal because they know how much ministers are getting from Asians Mota Engil etc.

  4. Sniper says:

    This is a good piece. Pointinting exactly where the problem is. Malawians have embraced corruption. In fact they envy those who are corrupt, those whose positions give them a chance to engage in corruption. So most would wish to work for MRA, Immigration, Road Traffic, tingoti m’boma. In police, everyone would wish to be a traffic officer. That’s it is. People enjoy corruption and that is the more reason nobody cares. It will take a generation to change. It will need a special curricula in the education system to change. Even the church doesn’t not want to preach the evils of corruption. In fact it preaches riches!

  5. KKKKKKKKKKKKKK says:

    We are a sorry state with illiterate stupid citizens

  6. Dee says:

    So very true. Is there hope for Malawi?

Comments are closed.