The criminal political culture and service provision in Malawi

Why is it that Malawian politicians feel compelled to steal from the State on a massive scale, repeatedly, with impunity, and without any remorse? How do we stop this behaviour?

Dr Danwood Chirwa

Dr Danwood Chirwa

These are some of the questions ordinary Malawians ask over and over. I would like to suggest that part of the answer lies in the lack of understanding of the role of the State and its institutions in a democracy and of the factors that the electorate should consider when choosing who to vote for.

It is not uncommon during electoral campaigns for parliamentary candidates to increase the level of support to their constituencies. Such support varies from cash handouts and food parcels to individual members of a constituency, and providing transport to ferry the sick or dead, to donations of medical and other supplies to clinics, donations to schools and bankrolling more costly development projects, such as roads, bridges, boreholes, hospitals, schools and so on.

While these activities decrease after electoral results are released, they continue throughout the electoral ‘off season’. For the most part, these activities constitute direct service provision to the community which should be done by state departments and institutions in an organised fashion. Some of these activities also constitute corruption of the electorate, where consideration in the form of a service, money or donation is given in return for a vote.

The demand for handouts and direct help to constituents that parliamentary contestants face is enormous. Most of the contestants wind up bankrupt or severely financially drained after elections. And yet they feel compelled to take part in these malpractices because of the fear that they would lose the elections to those who engage in these activities enthusiastically.

Unfortunately, in condoning and promoting these practices, parliamentary contestants promote the misconception that members of Parliament (MPs) are direct service providers. When MPs see direct service provision as their primary responsibility, they divert their attention from their core duties related to law making, executive oversight and debate over issues of national importance. The nation loses in the process since the absence of rigorous parliamentary debate means that the government will act based on insufficiently digested policies and without the much needed oversight from parliamentarians.

Service provision is the responsibility of government departments and agencies. MPs do not have the capacity and know-how to discharge this responsibility. This explains why, when they take on this role, MPs do so haphazardly and in a manner that is not sustainable.

In order to enhance their capacity to provide services to their constituencies, MPs seek to increase the pool of their financial resources by engaging in all kinds of behaviour, some of which are illicit or unethical, such as claiming allowances without attending the meetings at all or in full, bartering their voting rights to willing political parties, and demanding excessive salary increments. Furthermore, what has come to be known as ‘Cashgate’ is a political crime committed primarily to finance direct service provision to constituencies so that parliamentary contestants from particular parties have a competitive edge.

All these gimmicks result in the diversion of huge amounts of money from the organised State machinery for service provision to political patronage and electoral corruption. With diminished resources, the state cannot provide social services, which then creates a social service delivery deficit that must be filled by other actors. Since political contestants have to show that they are concerned about the collapse of service provision in their constituencies, they feel that they need to demonstrate that commitment by directly providing some of those services. This only kicks off another cycle of misconceived responsibilities and misplaced expectations and the consequent diversion of public funds.

It is clear that individual politicians, especially MPs, cannot reasonably be expected to provide social services. This is a practice that must be stopped, in the interests of all political contestants including MPs and of the general public. Parliament as a whole has a duty to raise public awareness about the nature of its constitutional responsibilities and those of its individual members. Furthermore, Parliament must seriously consider passing legislation that prohibits certain kinds of behaviour during electoral campaigns so that elections are won and lost not based on the money that individual contestants flash at the electorate but based on the ideas and ideals that the candidates stand for and commit to.

  • Danwood Chirwa is a Malawian professor of law based in South Africa. The article was published in the Weekend Nation of  4 July, 2015
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15 thoughts on “The criminal political culture and service provision in Malawi”

  1. Philosopher says:

    It is difficult for the parliament to civic educate the masses about their constitutional responsibilities because most of these members cannot earn a parliamentary seat based on merits, as such they will still continue with the status quo as a way of buying votes.

    kweni mwalemba nadi vakuvwika ada bwana.

  2. Malawian says:

    Good observation

  3. BLACKBAZUZU says:

    Shameless kleptomaniacs!

  4. hisbolla says:


  5. learnedmi says:


  6. Mhesha says:

    The real thieves of tax monies are not politicians but organized categories from the very same seemingly honest and humble civil servants. They literally share money for doing nothing.

  7. Aaron says:

    unfortunately malawi politics is deeply looted in tribal groups .people won’t change untill aleader is assassinated nothing will change

  8. agnes wanzeru says:

    The voters are the ones demanding these handouts from the contestants.

  9. captain says:

    When are we going to our Paul kagame. Someone who has the welfare of people at heart

  10. Jelbin mk says:

    Dan wood you have said it all our parliamentarians have taken the role of councillors on them not because they like doing so but because some people ignored the provisions of the constitution that at all times we should have councillors in place so that they can
    Run developmental projects in their respective wards while MPs are concentrating on their oversight role and on making sound and just laws that will lead to a full democratic society. The other problem is that democracy is a foreign thing as school is so people who can understand it better are those who are literate and know exactly what it means. If you can go around the communities in Malawi and ask people around you will find out that only one out of 100 people will tell you what it means by a manifesto. Thus why when voting they either vote for wakwathu or who has handed out most. With this level of illiteracy we should not expect good outcome from every general elections, it is unfortunate that our president despite being a professor also believes in severe handouts. Is it because he won through the aid of money and not because of having good policies?

  11. Funso says:

    I always enjoy reading the well-reasoned analyses of Professor Chirwa.

  12. Baba wa boy says:

    I never thought I would say this, but for once I agree with you Danwood.

    The people of this country indeed don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to condemning political looting.

    We expect our politicians to carry us from the cradle to the grave and that can be expensive.

  13. Professor Dr. James Napwiri Phiri says:

    I have read your piece with keen interest. Unfortunately, your writing is not giving hope to the people of Malawi.

    What you have written here, is just a recording of what is happening in Malawi. I am not at peace with your suggestions???? You say MPs should pass a legislation that should prohibit candidates to sell their manifesto based on cash hand outs? but on ideas?

    1. You recommend that to an incumbent MP, who got the seat through the same????? Are you in your senses??? You people , what law are you practising?? from Mars or what??

    2. You people when you become professors , you think you know everything. You mean an illiterate person from Hewe or Kasiyamaliro or a Vimbuza man can distinguish a good idea or a good manifesto from a bad one.

    Give us tangible solutions to Malawis politics. Professor Danwood Chirwa

  14. Kes says:

    Millions of kwachas went missing at nkhoma synod, what happened next? Where the even police called…no
    This is one of many examples of what is wrong in this country…
    Too much emphasis is being put on politicians but in truth stealing ISVs prevalent every where you go… It has became a subculture within our society..were they is money in Malawi trust me people are eating…
    Talk of football, for years money has been swindled out of the game from gate collections to sponsorship money…who has ever being reported to police and prosecuted? No one
    The number swindlers of government fund in Malawi are civil servants, they still and have been stealing money mercilessly for years. This is a fact…they are syndicates within the civil service that have been stealing money for years…
    Problem is it’s easier to blame politicians and you get more political mileage for it that blaming civil servants… Especially if you harbour deep hatred driven by tribal hatred, jealousy and envy for the current democratic elected government of Bwana Munthalika like Chirwa the writer has..

  15. Stanley says:

    This professor has been away for long and has no knowledge about what is happening on the ground, candidates no longer win on handouts, you needed to be home during last elections. Joyce who came third flashed everything that was at her disposal, people just got it and went home and feasted on it

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