Why we should brace ourselves for more cashgates in Malawi

Regardless of what happens to President Joyce Banda in May 2014, she will go down in Malawi’s historical record as a president for whom lightning struck twice. The first time was on Saturday 7th April when she was suddenly and unexpectedly thrust onto the stage as the fourth president of the Republic of Malawi. The second was on Friday 13thSeptember when the Malawi government’s Budget Director, Paul Mphwiyo, was shot and seriously wounded, prising open secrets of massive plunder of government cash that has been going on for years.

The metaphor of lightning striking twice for Mrs Joyce Banda is apt here because on two occasions, she has been given the “reset” button to click and chart a new path for the nation. Historical legacies for presidents don’t take shape for several years, so it will be a while before we know whether Mrs Joyce Banda did click “reset” or not. But by the time we know, there may have been a few more cashgates. And here’s why.

In the Out of Turn column of Saturday 2nd November, 2013, Malawi News “Guest Writer” laid out a five-point plan for how Malawi as a nation could move on from cashgate. The key argument from Guest Writer was that if we handled cashgate with wisdom and care, Malawi “could be corruption free” in the “next couple of years.” I have made optimism for Malawi, and for the continent my life philosophy (Afrika Aphukira), but it’s not for a simplistic feel-good factor. It takes a lot of energy, anger and yes, pessimism, to generate optimism for this country and for this continent. But it’s well worth the effort, in the end.

A humorous take on the scandal by an anonymous artist

Guest Writer is a kindred spirit in sharing optimism. But s/he has set the bar a bit low. Guest writer is basing his/her optimism that Malawi could be corruption free on the fear of consequences if someone is caught. Fear of a law that works and a law enforcement that is efficient is indeed enough of a disincentive for a would-be offender. But the rich and powerful always find a way to make the law work for them. They make the law. They make it in such a way that they can get away with murder.

President Joyce Banda has been unequivocal in stressing that no one will be spared, and that includes her family and children, as she told members of the clergy recently. Personally, I want to believe her, but I also realise what a revolutionary act that would be. Were she to allow full justice to take its course, she would be the figurative embodiment of kadziwotche, the insect which flies too close to the fire and gets burned in the process. I would like to sample the percentage of Malawians who believe the president when she says no one will be spared. The pessimists have a solid history to draw from.

But it’s the question of root causes of why cashgate happened that ought to exercise the toughest sinews of our muscles. Thus far pundits have listed greed, a lack of patriotism, a faulty IFMIS, spiritual decay, the destruction of ethics in public service, the politicisation of the civil service, a thoughtless transition from dictatorship to democracy, and unethical politicians looking for campaign cash, as some of the reasons that led to cashgate.

In order to do a good job digging up the root causes, we need to distinguish two things. What aspects of cashgate are pure personal greed and nothing more? That’s one thing. What aspects of cashgate reveal an inability by our political parties to raise funds to keep parties on their feet and effectively participate in national elections? That’s another thing. Each problem has its own unique solution.

The greed is a manifestation of both social inequalities that have infested over decades, and a spirit of avarice in a society where material wealth is the ultimate pursuit. The resulting inequality has bred huge resentments among social classes. Social inequality thrives in capitalist systems where the class divide is enormous. This is true of Malawi as it is of many countries. The few tens of thousands of Malawians who are gainfully employed are stuck in jobs that have no career path. Workers have no hope that things will ever improve for them.

Those in managerial positions who discovered this truth quickly found a way around the problem. They accumulated privileges and benefits for themselves, and suddenly catapulted themselves into a whole new social class. Such benefits included huge salaries, free school fees for their children, ownership of houses in affluent suburbs, health care, and ownership of expensive cars that become personal property after a certain loan period. For groups who can’t accrue such benefits and perks for themselves, they watch all this and find their ways of fighting back.

 

The problem of fundraising for parties indeed goes back to the transition from dictatorship to democracy. This is a much less discussed topic in Malawian politics. But it could very well lie at the root of why cashgate happened, why it was not the first time, and why it will not be the last time. It seems Malawian political parties have no financial stability outside state coffers, a point made in a 3rd April 2012 article by Jimmy Kainja, and revealed in a number of studies.  

Kainja observed at the time that it was “no coincidence that in Malawi it is only a ruling party that always has resources to buy and distribute political party materials: t-shirts, party cloth, bicycles, etc.” A Global Integrity article of 13th April 2012 hoped that the ascendancy of Joyce Banda to the presidency provided an opportunity for a fresh start in addressing problems of political corruption once and for all. In its May 2012 report titled Overview of corruption and anti-corruption in Malawi, Transparency International cited “patronage and clientelist networks” as feeding corruption in Malawi’s bureaucratic and political ranks.

Therein lie the two lightning strikes for President Joyce Banda. Social inequality is creating deep rifts among Malawians, a ticking time bomb. The increasing incidents of mass violence and vandalism we are witnessing across the country daily are but a tiny ripple in the sea of resentment resulting from this inequality. That is made more complicated by how our political parties have no established means of raising funds for their very survival, rendering the entire political arena a charade and a get-rich-quick scheme. Unless we address the fundamental causes of the deep inequality ripping Malawian society apart, we should brace ourselves for more cashgates.

 

Note: A version of this article appears in the ‘Guest Writer’ column ofThe Malawi News of Saturday, 9th November, 2013.

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