Ntata’s Uncommon Sense: Why we cannot trust elections to curb corruption in Malawi

This year, we celebrate 54 years of independence. We also celebrate the fact that for the first time ever, a sitting president has been directly mentioned in an investigation report as a beneficiary of a fraudulent and corrupt procurement deal. Corruption.  Every sane person must hate corruption. It affects us all. Be it a Passport taking ages to be processed because the processing officer wants some sort of a ‘motivation’ to do their job or failing to land that contract you know you deserve because you were not willing to offer a kickback to the procurement team, or general poor service delivery because prices and costs were inflated, and inept personnel were hired. We are all affected.

PAC says it will provide demo placards

The recent leaked investigative report on the circumstances surrounding the award of the contract of providing meal rations to the Malawi Police to Pioneer Investments has aroused different reactions. Many people are angry, some are disappointed, others indifferent. Many, however, cannot wait to “oust these thieves” next year. After all, the polls are only less than a year away from now.

However, as long as we continue to accept that the people governing us can steal from us all they want, with all the impunity imaginable, because we will deal with them at the Ballot, which comes once every five years, we will never see the light of day in as far as public plunder of the nation is concerned. This approach guarantees the thieving politician that he can get away with anything because he knows he will finish his term regardless. He is especially emboldened by our weak criminal prosecution institutions that even should his term expire, he can weave around any attempts to jail him exploiting the gaps in our institutions which only those with money can exploit.

Next year, a new person may win the elections alright but without guarantees that he or she will face the music if they dare steal our taxes, it will be like we are walking in circles. Just take a look at the people that are being seen as front-runners for the next elections. One is a guy heavily rumoured to have been silenced with a “house” about the Salima – Lilongwe Waterway Project such that he has not even once questioned the veracity of the value of the project and the lack of regard for procedure in the award and implementation of the project.

One, accepting that the party he has belonged to for the past 4 years is corrupt, tribalistic and cronyistic only decided to leave after he realised he was not getting the position he wanted.

Another is a guy who has not addressed Malawians yet on why he allowed himself to benefit from a shoddy Tractors deal even in a clear conflict of interest situation.

The other one is a former president who presided over the worst plunder of national resources we have ever known.

One is the man who hid his brother’s late body and flew it to South Africa to attempt to circumvent the constitution on the Vice President ascending to power, and as has been confirmed by his Spokesman has recently received proceeds of corruption. One of these people will be President next year, and for the successive 5 years.

We cannot continue to bank on these people’s goodwill to govern us without blemish. Without any sign that we are ready and willing as citizenry to handle any malfeasance by the government there and then, we can as well forget about healing the scourge that is corruption in our nation. Five years is too long, a tad too long to wait. By that time the thief will have finished enriching his cronies, relatives, praise-singers and village men while we continue to wallow in abject lack.

These thieves must know that there are consequences to stealing from us. They must be kicked out the moment we realise we cannot trust them with our painfully earned taxes.

It never ceases to amaze me that many of my fellow citizens assume that holding politicians accountable for their actions isn’t too difficult in a representative democracy that values civic engagement; that it is simply a matter of protesting for a day whatever injustice of misbehaviour is on the menu at any given time.  The hard truth is that in Malawi today, we’re faced with a political process often more catered to moneyed interests than the will of the people. This has led many Malawians to become simply slacktivists — people who believe they’re making change by participating in temporary, feel-good measures (like sharing links or firing off on social media) that don’t result in real policy or behavioral change in our politicians.

But perhaps slacktivism is on the rise because as I pointed out sometime back, many people of my generation are too selfish to take any real political causes too personally and seriously? We seem not to realise, however, that firing off on social media and making various noises without an action plan do not bring any real change. Need I remind us that despite weeks of heavy protest on social media and elsewhere on the government’s intention to shoot down the 50+1 bill, the bill was still shot down?

My fundamental problem, then, is that talking or protests alone as a way of giving action of our dissatisfaction with the system simply aren’t working. I think one of the problems with contemporary activism is that we’ve really lowered our horizon of possibility. We’ve really changed what we think success is. I look at the 18th, 19th, 20th centuries and ask myself, what did success mean as a political activist? The answer is that is meant a political revolutionary! It meant the Russian revolution, the Chinese revolution, or the American Revolution. Taking control of one’s government, changing the way power functions.

It seems to me that success now has become something like getting a lot of people to like and read my Facebook post. Or simply have a headline in the morning that I am against something. We protest and protest but we consistently fail to change how power functions. But wasn’t this supposed to be the ultimate goal? I think that this is an indictment of contemporary activism and Malawian passivism. We march and protest but ultimately, it doesn’t work. I think it’s really important as an activist to constantly learn from one’s past failures. It seems to me that a lot of Malawian activists don’t want to learn from protests of the past.

When I read headlines of planned demonstrations, I always worry that they simply repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again. We have become obsessed with the spectacle of street protests, and we have started to ignore the reality that we are getting no closer to power.

I am convinced that if we really want Malawi to change from a country where the President himself can simply ignore procedures and benefit from procurement deals, or where procurement rules are never followed and corruption is the order of the day, then our activism must go beyond protests. What we need is a collective and sustained action plan for forcing real and visible change.

I strongly believe it is very possible for those truly angry with the kind of corruption that has even sucked in the very president himself to build a social movement that would win elections in many, many rural communities very quickly or even nationally at the presidential level; much more quickly than anyone’s ever seen. I think that it is conceivable that we could wake up and we could have activists controlling literally the whole governance framework in a way that we’ve never seen before.

If we want our presidents to stop stealing, we cannot trust elections. We need to look to ourselves as a people for solutions.

  • I am indebted to Wanangwa Kalua, Attorney at Law, for his help with this article.
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