What really caused cashgate in Malawi?

With over a month and a half now since the government financial scandal hashtagged #cashgate erupted, are we closer to understanding the underlying causes why it happened? We can classify the reasons why this happened from simplest to most complex. Going by the earliest statements that were offered in September, the simplest explanation can be caricatured as “IFMIS made me do it.” It came from commentators whose first explanation was that the Integrated FinancialManagement Information System was faulty.

The most complex explanation thus far as to why cashgate happened has been that we may have transitioned from one-party rule into multiparty rule without having dealt with the question as to the kind of public service ethos the new dispensation would require. This explanation is extrapolated from thoughts expressed by Jimmy Kainja,  Dr. Blessings Chinsinga, and Dr. Justin Malewezi. The biggest challenge facing us a nation now is whether we can learn from the scandal redefine the kind of character we want to instil into ourselves as Malawians.

Jimmy Kainja wrote in Nyasa Times in the first few days saying the scandal was “a symptom of a rotten nation.” He traced the roots to Dr. Bakili Muluzi’s rule between 1994 and 2004. The word “rotten” has also been used by Martha Kwataine in an interview with the Weekend Nation of 26th October. She says “We are a nation that is rotten and rated very low internationally in as far as patriotism is concerned.”

A humorous take on the scandal by an anonymous artist

In the same issue of the Weekend Nation Dalitso Kubalasa maintains the corporal imagery used to describe the degeneration of a living being. He says the scandal shows that “our society is sick.” Writing in the Daily Times of Wednesday 30th October, Dr. DD Phiri attributes the massive looting of money at Capital Hill to “greed.” There are politicians and civil servants who do not wish the country well, he writes. They only care for their personal wealth.

Wonders Dr. Justin Malewezi in The Nation of 30th October: “How can people be so greedy and so thoughtless about others?” He argues that something was lost in the transition. He harks back to the civil servicehe worked in during the one party era, which was characterised by three ethical pillars: respect for hierarchy, merit, and teamwork. He says all three pillars were destroyed at the onset of multiparty rule, when government introduced the “contracts” system. With this system, people can now join the civil service from outside and ride over the heads of several long serving officers. That killed the respect for hierarchy, merit and teamwork.

Innocent Chitosi (Malawi News, 26th October) is worried that we are “grappling with the symptoms and overlooking the causes.” He puts the finger on “unethical politicians who want fuel for their party rallies or cash to splurge during the rallies.” Agreeing with him is Ephraim Nyondo who believes that the president has known about corruption in government from her previous cabinet positions, but chose not to raise the alarm until Paul Mphwiyo was shot (Nation on Sunday, 27thOctober).

He does not see the current cabal as capable of rooting out the rot: “This is why the future of Malawi hardly rests in this crop of post-colonial vampires of politicians. They need to be wiped out for good so that we start a rethink of this country.” Reminds one of “Prophet” Joseph Nkasa’s latest hit which says a vehicle that has damaged a road cannot be used to repair the same road. You need a D7.

But Dr. Chinsinga sees a silver lining in the cashgate cloud. He says “cashgate presents a very rare opportunity to raise and confront squarely bigger and potentially epoch making national questions  . . . The nation is ripe for tough and bold decisions from the political class.”

Two questions need some honest answers from us all. First: why did some sections of our society give up on the country to the extent revealed in the looting and plundering? The answer to that question needs to include what can be done to restore hope and what Martha Kwataine calls ‘patriotism’ in us all. Second: what did we miss during the transition that led to political parties that seem incapable of financing their campaigns outside state coffers?

Speaking to leaders of faith-based organisations last week, the president struck a rare tone in candid talk. She said neither her family members, nor her very own children, would be shielded in the investigations currently underway.  But dealing with the looting of state coffers once and for all and ensuring it never happens again requires going beyond the present scandal. It requires an extended, deeper discussion of what really led to the scandal, and whether indeed this can be seen as a defining moment for a fundamental re-examination of what kind of Malawi we would like to shape.

Note: A version of this article appears on the My Turn column in The Nation of Wednesday, 6th November, 2013. An account of how the scandal broke started can be found on the Global Voices Online website.

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