In an article entitled Smoke and Mirrors – Unpacking the Paul Mphwiyo Saga which was published in this publication last week, I posited that my strongest feeling was that Mphwiyo’s shooting was a consequence of his own life style, namely his socializing with other people’s wives or an underhand deal gone bad.
Since that article was published, a number of developments have unfolded. Pika Manondo whom I mentioned in that article only as Pika and whom I described as Mphwiyo’s closest friend with whom they shared their high life, is now on the official, wanted list by both our local police as well as Interpol.
Pika’s Brother, also mentioned in the same article as having been the one who provided shelter to Mphwiyo when he was just starting off in the civil service, is now on remand in connection with the same case. But while the police has been busy building its case and closing in on its suspects, elsewhere, a parallel trial of the same matter is taking place on the Malawi social media, with the Civil Society Organisations (CSO) community, the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) and the donor community, unwittingly, sitting on the jury.
Trial by social media
Let me start by making a very brief background of the Malawi social media community, Facebook, in particular, and why it is critical to Mphwiyo’s Case and indeed the rest of big issues that affect Malawi.
With just around 320,000 users, Malawi has one of the smallest Facebook populations in the world and even in the region. But when it comes to social media, even one person can have such an impact that may resonate well beyond the Facebook community. Most Facebook users belong to Facebook groups where they share and discuss matters related to their interests. Individuals can also post on their personal walls where friends that are connected to them can view and comment on whatever has been shared and even proceed to share this on their posts where it can then be picked and shared by friends of friends and so on. When this happens the post is said to have gone viral and this is where social media tends to get dangerous.
Those who are familiar with Malawi Facebook, know that most people have complained of the existence of an organized gang that infiltrates other groups with the purpose of bullying and harassing the members who hold opposing views. The story on Facebook is that the gang is financed by some major opposition party specifically for this purpose and they are provided with high-end laptops and smartphones apart from a hefty financial compensation.
One specific group, ‘My Malawi, My Views’ almost collapsed after well meaning members left the group or were bullied into silence by this gang for simply holding opposing views or supporting other parties including the ruling one. ‘My Malawi My Views’ is now in the process of trying to clean up the group by ensuring that no bullying is allowed but it is a hard sell to make considering that most well-meaning contributors lost trust.
As of now, My Malawi My Views is still being used by this group where they now create anonymous write ups, making serious allegations against individuals holding high offices in government. They then descend on the post with vicious comments attacking that person based on allegation which they manufactured in the first place. From there they proceed to repeat the lie by sharing the post on other forums until it goes viral and gains currency as a fact. Tracing the allegation to its root will show that the original author does not exist.
This group has now pounced on the Mphwiyo case where it is carefully creating an impression that Mphwiyo was specifically hired by the President to help siphon money from state coffers with a target of K7 billion to be raised for the party and his shooting was a result of him stealing from that loot.
As I mentioned earlier, I would not be surprised that the shooting had something to do with a deal gone bad but, at the same time, I do not think any party is stupid enough to actually put together a committee for the sole purpose of stealing from government. I am not denying that there will always be ruling party members who will try to muscle their way into government systems for purposes of getting huge contracts for which they will be paid huge sums sometimes without even delivering a single item. We have been seeing this since Bakili Muluzi’s time and it is still there. But for a ruling party to form a stealing committee is below even this current one.
Anyway, typical of this Facebook gang’s modus operandi, they have thrown in a couple of names –starting from the President, her vice, two ministers, the head of intelligence and now even the Reserve Bank Governor. Their call to action for this project is for the people who have been named in the allegation to resign. You did not hear me: I said, they are calling for the government to resign based on an allegation they are peddled on social media.
That is just great. For people can believe that a whole sitting head of state or a minister would resign their position simply because an anonymous source has published an allegation on Facebook is just plain stupid. If that were possible, then any fool could make any allegation against any government official all because they want them to resign.
But stupid as this notion, it is surprising to see as to who has actually been blindsided and has fallen for the gimmick.
Victim One: CSOs
CSOs are generally believed to be acting on behalf of the civil society especially where it comes to representing public concerns to the government. For a long time, the Malawi CSO community has been very instrumental in standing in the gap in defending and advancing people’s rights. But there have also been instances where the CSO community has failed miserably in performing its mandate due to sensationalism. The Mphiwyo Saga is a case in point.
In the sequence of events which started with the incident where a civil servant was found in possession of K120 million which was, itself, quickly followed by the Mphwiyo shooting, our SCO community quickly bought into the social media agenda that this was a single case of conspiracy to defraud the state.
Since then the CSO community has gone public to call for the Anti Corruption Bureau and the police to investigate government for what it terms ‘serious fraud’ of state resources. According to the CSO Community, the K120 million came from government coffers and Mphwiyo was shot by people who were not happy that he was giving himself a lion’s share of the loot.
As a story, this makes for very interesting reading but that is all it is – a story. For as of today, no one can prove that the K120 million came from some government account; no one – including myself – can prove that Mphwiyo was shot over the unfair sharing of the same money. As for myself, all argued in my previous article was that whatever the reason for his shooting, it had nothing to do with him trying to stop corruption because stopping corruption is well above his official pay grade and that, unless he had experienced a Damascus conversion a few hours prior to the incident, stopping underhand dealings runs contra his character.
So for our CSO community to buy into these social media rumours and start peddling them as truth in press statements is, to say the least, very embarrassing for the nation. It is this very alarmist approach that makes our CSO community very wanting. They tend to be emotional and jump to conclusions before examining the matter. Last time they screamed murder when Bingu tried to introduce local courts to be dealing with minor issues at local level in order to reduce congestion at higher courts. The CSOs claimed these would turn out to be traditional courts that Dr. Kamuzu Banda used as Kangarroo courts to deal with political opponents. Today, the court system is so clogged it has ground to a stop and those in the know will tell you that CSO did the nation a disservice.
It is this same tendency to ignore rules of engagement when it comes to engaging with government, putting aside rationalism in favour of sensationalism that they have brought on this case. They cannot prove any of the allegations they are making against government in the Mphwiyo Saga apart from what they have read on Facebook.
Victim Two: The ACB
The ACB is yet another unwitting victim of the social media scam. Instead of doing its mandate of investigation corruption, the watchdog has unwittingly become an accomplice in this social media propaganda by opening investigations into government expenditure based on Facebook rumours.
Mention has to be made, though, that it is not unusual for security and investigating authorities to open an investigation based on revelations published in mainstream media. The reason for this is that unlike social media, rules of engagement do not allow mainstream media to publish rumours or allegations. The mainstream media deals only with facts and unless an incident took place or an issue actually exists with proof, mainstream media will not even ask for comments from those named. Most mainstream media outlets are aware that even within their ranks there exist reporters who can manufacture lies for their own ulterior motives. That is why they have gatekeepers called editors whose job is to sieve fact from fiction.
Unfortunately, the ACB seem to have moved from using mainstream media to social media as sources of investigation, which is a shame. With so many allegations being made on Facebook how will the ACB decide which ones to investigate and which one not to?
That however is not what is very wrong with the ACB’s involvement in this matter. The fact is that the ACB’s role in this case is really a case of a wrong dog barking up the right tree. If some people at Capital Hill are causing public money to grow legs and crawl from government coffers into their personal accounts, then what we have is a simple case of grand larceny – theft, pure and simple. It is certainly not a case of corruption by any standard. In that case the ACB is not supposed to do anything about it because their responsibility is to investigate corruption and not theft.
Theft of public funds is the domain of the Fiscal Police. Granted, that the reputation of the Fiscal Police is, itself, not very good but that is where we now need to strengthen their capacity. If donors are, indeed, willing to help as they have pledged, then this is where they can come in. Bring in the FBI or Scotland Yard and let them work on this case alongside Fiscal Police. They can then proceed to have a working relationship with our police for purposes of capacity building by way of continued corporation on cases until such a time our Fiscal Police regains the reputation it once had during the Kamuzu era.
Otherwise allowing the ACB to be investigating theft of public funds entails expensive duplication of roles where the taxpayer ends up funding two separate institutions to do the same job. Additionally, ACBs continued investigation on this matter will only serve to further undermine the Fiscal Police. But above all else, we all know ACB’s reputation where successful completion of cases is concerned – zero. So your guess is as good as mine as to what will happen to this case if ACB stays on board.
Victim Three – The Donor Community
The Donor Community issued a communiqué towards the end of last week, pledging to help government to do a thorough investigation on allegations of theft and fraud in government based on issues arising from the Mphwiyo Shooting. While this is a welcome development, it is very clear to see that the donor community has also bought into the social media lie. In the first place, government never complained that it is losing money and that is helpless to stop the fiscal hemorrhage. As far as government is concerned, it can account for all the money it budgeted for, at least, that is what one would expect if one considers the fact that government never complained or asked for any help.
But at the same time, we are also aware that the donors are notorious for eavesdropping on recipient governments – not a secret after the cable wiki leaks. So our hope in this case is that the intelligence they gather goes beyond a president’s choice of drink or who is sleeping with who, up there. We want to believe that they also have intelligence on illegal movements of cash in government if that has been the case. So if they really what to help, the first step would be for them to share their intelligence with the Malawi security organs as to what their spies have gathered around this case.
And this is my conclusion. Firstly, my prayer is that we all become aware of the existence of a social media gang that is trying to use social media to terrorise government officials using false allegations peddled as truth. Secondly, I pray that we allow the Mphwiyo Case to come to its rightful conclusion by allowing the right investigating authorities to carry out a professional investigation on this matter.
In this case, Criminial Investigations Division (CID) must be allowed to deal with the shooting incident while Fiscal Police Police must deal with the theft and fraud allegations. Further, these arms of the police can benefit from the donors offer for additions expertise – FBI, Scotland Yard, etc. Thirdly, I hope that our CSO Community will stick to the rules of engagement if they really want the government to listen and respond to their concerns. Fourthly, I believe it would be in the interest of the nation if the ACB stopped undermining the police and stay clear of this case.
Finally, let us remember that Paul Mphwiyo is alive and, last time I heard, he was coherent and could write. He has a right to speak for himself so let us not rush to conclusion as to the specifics of what led to his shooting . It is one thing to know that he is not exactly Mr. Clean but that does not mean we have to make statements for him as to what actually led to this unfortunate incident. Let him tell his side of the story.
- Mizaya Singileti is a Nyasa Times columnist.
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