The game is over for President Joyce Banda now that the country’s main bilateral aid giver has spoken.
Britain will not resume aid to Malawi until those involved in the stealing of public money amounting to millions of dollars are held accountable.
Just how the Banda administration will respond remains to be seen but expecting the government to take this one quietly could be expecting too much as Information Minister and government spokesman Brown Mpinganjira has been vicious in defending the government like a junkyard dog.
Mpinganjira, recently appointed to cabinet together with Justice Minister Fahad Assani and Finance Minister Maxwell Mkwezalamba, has accused donors of conniving with the Civil Society to overthrow the government. This was after the Civil Society, dissatisfied with the way the government has been handling cashgate, announced plans to hold demonstrations.
It is déjà vu as similar statements were made when the noose tightened on the government of Bingu wa Mutharika who was succeeded by Banda to finish the remainder of his term. Mutharika died in office from a heart attack in 2010. [Note that diplomatic ties between Malawi and Britain were severed after Mutharika threw out of the country its envoy for saying that the Malawi leader was autocratic. UK cut off aid which was restored after Banda assumed the presidency.]
What is cashgate?
It was discovered last year that government paid millions of dollars to entities that never delivered whatever they claimed to be selling. Some of the bogus claims were made by entities that belonged to top ranking ruling party officials.
Following the revelation, donors froze aid which unfortunately the country needs. They asked the Banda administration to investigate and bring to justice those responsible. To avoid any excuses, the UK bankrolled an independent audit of government financial records.
The probe was conducted by a UK firm which released its findings after delays. The report has disappointed Malawians because they expected to see no names in it. But the UK says releasing names of those suspected of wrong doing would harm the cases in court.
It has to be noted that it is not only Banda’s reputation on the line here. It is the UK’s as well. Critics in the former British colony have accused the UK of blindly supporting President Banda, Malawi’s first and Africa’s second female head of state.
One can understand efforts to help Banda succeed as she inherited an economy that was in the crapper. In fact, many wished her well but the president blew it and won herself enemies as a result.
While the Malawi government continues to preach austerity, Banda does not walk the walk. She travels extensively both locally – distributing maize to hungry people and elevating chiefs — and abroad. It is as though she is stuck in perpetual campaign mode.
There is more. President Banda is said to have accumulated a lot of wealth in the short time she has been in office. It is however difficult for the public to make a comparison as the [re]declared assets of the wife of former chief justice were never made public after being submitted to the Speaker of Parliament.
The Banda administration also told Malawians it had sold for $15 million the presidential jet bought by Mutharika as a cost-cutting measure after Britain had protested. Actually Britain, suspecting money for development projects had been used to buy the plane, did reduce aid to the southern African country when Mutharika was in power.
The Nation on Sunday, quoting Malawi central bank sources, recently reported that the money from the sale was not deposited into a government account that handles such transactions. When asked about it this week, Finance Minister Mkwezalamba told at a Public Affairs Committee conference in Blantyre that the money was used to buy maize but he did not know where the maize was.
It is not only Britain really pissed about cashgate. Norwegian Ambassador to Malawi Asbjorn Eidhammer who attended the PAC conference was quoted by the Daily Times saying “whoever was behind it, the government in power must take responsibility.”
And the head of Overseas Private Investment Corporation Elizabeth Littlefield who was sent to Malawi by US President Obama says: “I’m personally shocked to learn of the magnitude of the financial crisis here in Malawi.”
She told the Daily Times that Malawi which is wooing investors had “to deal with the high level of corruption and take a new direction.
“If the findings of the audit are taken seriously and those determined to have been involved are brought to justice, Malawi can be a model for handling the tragic scourge of corruption for others across the continent and beyond,” Littlefield says.
Donors are peeved off and for all the government protestations, the simple fact remains that the Banda administration can no longer afford to dance around cashgate. The jig is up!
- The author is a former founding editor of Maravi Post