Declaration of assets and the fight against corruption in Malawi

Malawi is one of the poor countries in the Southern Africa. The country faces numerous challenges as a result of corrupt practices at all levels.

According to Transparency International, Malawi ranks on an enviable position of 91 out of 177 with a score of 37 out of 100 percent, which shows that it is one the most corrupt countries in the world.

Unlike most of the least developed countries, Malawi hasn’t progressed well economically since attaining its independence in 1964. Unemployment is still high and over half of the 13, 000,000 population are surviving on less than a dollar per day.

Technocrats have come up with several policies meant to reduce poverty in Malawi using the available resources like Vision 2020 launched with much pomp by the former President Bakili Muluzi, the Greenbelt Initiative and Millennium Development Goals adopted by the late President Bingu wa Mutharika.corruption-poster-reuters

But there appears to be lack of political will to implement these blueprints and with corruption taking its toll within all the strata of the Malawian society, achieving poverty eradication remains a pipe dream.

The three leaders that country have had so far since embracing multiparty democracy in 1993, have all associated with allegations of embezzling public funds.

To begin with, Dr Bakili Muluzi (1994-2004), the country’s first democratically elected President took over the reign of power when he was almost to be declared bankrupt but he came out a millionaire. He is currently answering charges of diverting donors’ money amounting to K1.7 billion into his personal account. He denies the charges.

Then came late Bingu wa Mutharika (2004-2012). He became president while working for COMESA as Secretary General based in Zambia. But by the time he was facing the death on April 6, 2012, he had a lot of money with some of them found in his room at State House.

Rumours have it that the 61 billion kwacha worth of assets that he amassed in his 7 years rule were public funds. Mutharika used to travel by public transport just before he ascended to the high office of the Republic of Malawi and one wonders how he amassed such a fortune within that short period of time.

Now, comes President Dr Joyce Banda who took the reign of power after the demise of Bingu wa Mutharika. President Banda started with a high note that she won a lot of confidence from the international developmental partners who walked out the country after sour relationship with Mutharika.

But barely a year into the office, her government has as well been connected to serious stories of rampant corruption. The prominent one being the infamous “Cash-gate” where high ranking civil servants and senior ruling party officials are alleged to have been siphoning billions of kwachas from the government’s consolidated account.

Some analysts are suggesting that the best way to deal with this self enrichment problem is to require senior public officers to make statutory declaration of assets when assuming the office and make them known to the public who would then make the leaders accountable should there be unexplained increase in their assets that is not in line with their official income.

The country’s current Penal Code demands only the President and his or her deputy to declare their assets, but the file remains in the hands of Speaker of Parliament and it is not allowed to made available to the public.

But is the declaration and revelation of assets enough remedy for preventing high level corruption?

The declaration of assets, although the concept is good in itself has not worked to the benefit of the country. This is because the current law does not provide for the citizenry to question the leaders (when leaving the office) to account for the wealth that they have managed to accumulate while they were in office.

“The problem is the law. I found the draft in office and I am pushing for the law to move forward. I ask you to demand Parliament to pass a law that would include what you are asking. I cannot do things outside the law,” President Joyce Banda once said as she was responding to the question by Zodiak Broadcasting Station journalist Pilirani Phiri after asked if she considers being the first leader to make her declared assets public.

It therefore makes the whole exercise of declaring assets a worthless procedure. It is very difficult to prove the authenticity of the declarations; whether they are accurate or simply exaggerated in order to accommodate for subsequent corrupt practices.

Politicians have the choice to declare what they want and what not to and put whatever values they want to put on their declared assets. After all, it is a one-off-declaration that does not require updates, audit or reconciliation and is not subjected to any public scrutiny. So who cares?

Recently, the National Assembly passed the assets bill that widens the scope of those that should declare their assets since they are also entrusted with the use of use tax payers’ money.

Many people have commended the Assembly for enacting the new law with some saying it will help curb rampant corruption in Malawi.

“We are finally there. It’s an important bill that will go a long way in curbing corruption,” Attorney General Anthony Kamanga was quoted by the local media as saying while describing it as “very good development.”

However, while it is commendable that the current government has taken such a bold step, the new law cannot apply retrospectively to those that are already in office and are at the center of the current Cash-gate saga.

Further, the law does not give enough powers to the public to call their leaders to account on any suspicious abuse of public resources. This means that even if the country is to increase the level of people to declare their assets, the curbing of high level corruption shall remain a farfetched dream.

Institutions like Malawi Revenue Authority (MRA) which collects tax should be used effectively if we are to end corruption. This is because with proper tax system in place, it is easy to know someone’s source and level of income.

Nobody can buy many cars or properties without paying tax. The values for those properties can be reconciled with the income declared by the individual to MRA. MRA should know what every citizen in the country earns and the sources of that income so that it is taxed correctly.

After all, apart from businesses, MRA already issued Personal Identification Numbers for purposes of income tax calculations to all employed people in the country. There should also be strong collaboration between MRA, the Anti Corruption Bureau (ACB) and the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) if the country is to really stamp out corruption.

Many people working in civil service have built mansions that do not correspond to their level of income even if allowances and private businesses were taken into account, and if those three bodies continue to work in isolation Malawi shall not win a fight against corruption.

Corruption remains a big enemy to the country’s economic growth. For instance, up to now public hospitals are still facing acute shortage of drugs and people are dying due to lack of essential drugs arising from the untimely and inadequate supply by the government and also by the siphoning of those few drugs by the hospital workers who sells them to private clinics.

The saddest part however, is that when the senior officers get sick, they are flown outside the country to get proper treatment and the poor patients are being asked to buy the drugs from private pharmacies where the price of drugs is quite expensive such that many of the rural and majority of Malawians cannot afford to buy.

So declaration of assets although it is not the only solution to stamping corruption out of Malawi, but making each citizen accountable on how they have acquired their wealth could be a way to go, which is doubtful as to whether there is enough political will in the country to implement it.

  • The author of this article, Marshall Dyton is a journalist based in Blantyre. He likes tweeting. Follow him @dytonmashall

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