Is it really illegal to steal in Malawi? I mean, is it illegal to steal when say, one is a senior member of the so-called ruling party or a cabinet minister or a president, and when one uses the money to advance the party agenda, or to buy beer for college students, or to promote a personal political career? Is it illegal to steal from the public coffers to bribe MPs in parliament to vote a certain way and defeat an important bill like the 50+1 bill for instance?
The question may not be as rhetorical as some might think. When you listen to Malawians speaking about their political and economic plight, you often hear many people say of political individuals who suddenly acquire unexplained wealth and become billionaires overnight that it is “their time”- apparently because their party is now running government. Somehow we seem to admire such characters for being “smart” enough to promote or support a presidential candidate who eventually wins an election. We say they worked hard and now are entitled to reap the rewards of their labour. The fact that they are thieves stealing from the nation as a whole, if it ever enters the mind, is not seriously considered. We seem to think that the thieves are actually smart.
To get to the bottom of why looting public funds to finance political and personal advancement in Malawi, it is necessary to understand why in Malawi, stealing when a party is in power has become an acceptable practice.
The philosophical reasoning behind stealing is that people steal when, Perceived payoff from stealing is greater than the perceived cost of the stealing.
Perceived payoff from stealing is high when a person is really desperate or when the amount of wealth involved is significant. When someone is mugging you, the perceived payoff for the mugger has possibly increased because of desperation. If you really need money for that next meal to survive the payoff is significant.
Perceived payoff is also high when the amount of wealth involved is significant. When a top politician decides to involve himself in corrupt deals, his perceived payoff is huge and makes the stealing worth it. The same is true for top civil servants, top corporate honchos or other white-collar crimes.
Perceived cost of stealing is more interesting and it can change drastically due to a number of factors. If you could steal with no one knowing it, the perceived cost is close to nearly nothing. At that point the only cost stopping you is a moral cost. This may explain why looting of public funds in Malawi is now almost normal. Malawian society has been emasculated and programmed to accept stealing politicians to the point that the cost of stealing is nearly zero in most cases- especially when a person is a member of the so-called ruling party.
Sometimes even moral costs are altered by convincing yourself of certain stories. For the British folk hero Robin hood, for instance, the perceived moral cost for him was zero because he believed he was doing a righteous thing.
Perceived cost of stealing also changes when situations change dramatically breaking the fabric of a normal society. Think wars, natural calamities and revolutions. You often read about looting and stealing in such scenarios. This is because there is no legal cost and the dramatically altered situation makes moral cost look insignificant.
And more important in the Malawian situation, if you have the power to alter the cost of stealing, then again the perceived cost of stealing goes down significantly. Top politicians in this country have nearly zero cost to stealing in the short to medium term. This is because they have used power to manipulate the cost to nothing; and our society has happily cheered them and considers them to be smart
That truth, however, and the normal operating environment that the country needs to be rebooted back to, is that it is illegal to steal. It is immoral to steal. Nothing more. Nothing less. Malawian society decided to make it this way and for a very good reason.
Recently, in his response to the President Peter Mutharika’s State of the Nation address, MCP president and leader of opposition in parliament Lazarus Chakwera said that stealing has become such a norm under the DPP that it would be easier to remove DPP from government than is would be to remove stealing from the DPP.
This is an accurate statement. It fails, however, to address the real question. The real question is: What made the DPP to become a bunch of thieves? Is it simply a matter of the fact that the DPP is an assembly of individuals with bad character and no morals? Is this the reason stealing, looting and plunder seems to be hard-wired into the DPP DNA?
I argue that this is not the case. The current divisions in the DPP are revealing, probably for the first time, that there are some people in the DPP that can actually see sense and have the perception to recognise the direction the party needs to take for the betterment of the country. The problem, it seems to me, is that these voices are being drowned by actions and screams of those that somehow this country considers smart because they had the ability to steal enough money from the public coffers that they can use it to bribe the political process even in their own party.
I continue to submit that in the final analysis, it is the country’s governance framework that creates thieving parties, individuals and politicians. Chakwera may have been right in decrying the theft seemingly ingrained in the DPP, but I would challenge him that with the current governance framework, where thieves and considered smart, there is no guarantee than he or any other leader for that matter would not end up with the same problems when they find that the cost of stealing is so little when you are in power to the point if being non-existent.
Thieves are not smart. They are just opportunists. When thieves are in power and unscrupulously looting a country, the responsibility of rejecting the regime, turning the tables and reclaiming the country to show that thieving isn’t smart rests squarely on the citizens.