One on one with the British High Commissioner to Malawi

The publication of the much-awaited forensic report into what has come to be called cashgate, the worst financial scandal to rock the Malawi government since independence in 1964 has been described  as an anti-climax for its omission of names. British High Commissioner Micheal Nevin, whose government funded the audit, has come under fire for advising the Auditor General against publishing the names.

Journalist Raphael Tenthani sat down with Nevin to discuss the controversy. Excerpts:

Your Excellency, you have personally come under attack in some quarters following your advice for the Auditor General not to publish names of those fingered in the audit. Some have even gone as far as accusing you of meddling in Malawi internal politics. What is your reaction?

We were deeply concerned about the reports of alleged theft of public funds. Sound and secure public financial management is critical to Malawi’s development and to our ability to provide financial aid through government systems.

British High Commissioner in Lilongwe, Michael Nevin
British High Commissioner in Lilongwe, Michael Nevin

As a close partner of Malawi we wanted to respond to the government’s request for UK expertise to help investigate the scandal. It is in our interests too that the perpetrators are brought to account, serving as a deterrent to others tempted to misappropriate public funds.

Baker Tilley was contracted by DFID to undertake an independent audit, which they have done and continue to do. They are an internationally recognised firm which has plenty of experience in audit work in the wider Africa region, including previous work in Malawi.

We share the desire of all Malawians to know who was responsible. We want to help uncover all those suspected of benefiting from the alleged theft, fraud and corruption – the final beneficiaries as well as the initial beneficiaries. We share the forensic auditors’ view that releasing names potentially risks that goal. That is because the auditors have not yet finished their work – releasing names could compromise their investigations into the wider corrupt network and the investigations by the Malawi authorities.

The investigators and legal professionals tell us they believe releasing names prematurely may risk jeopardising the cases. I am sure the public do not want that to happen.

Our caution therefore has nothing to do with politics or the understandable emotion that surrounds this issue. It is about applying rational approaches to achieve results and mitigate risks. We want to ensure that all those who were behind this scandal are caught.

However, the report is now the ownership of the Auditor General and the case files will be handed to Malawi’s investigating authorities. It is ultimately the decision of the Malawi authorities to decide how to progress in line with the Laws of Malawi.

It may be argued that Malawians already know some of the people involved as some cases relating to ‘cashgate’ are in court. Would it be wrong to suggest that there might be some additional names in the audit you’re trying to shield?

The forensic auditors are completing case files with potential evidence for prosecution. It will then need Malawi’s investigating and prosecuting authorities to decide on the evidence and how to take cases forward. The case files can help support robust cases, existing or new. So it is still very much an ongoing investigation, with further evidence likely to emerge and the final figure of sums lost likely to rise.

You obviously are privy to salient details in the audit. Without getting into specifics, do you think the audit has answered all the questions surrounding ‘cashgate’?

Work is still ongoing. And not just by the auditors. The Anti-Corruption Bureau, the police and the Financial Intelligence Unit continue their investigations. But there is a lot in the report that deserves consideration, irrespective of the debate over the non-disclosure of names.

Now that the much-awaited for report is out, what do you think should happen next?

It will be up to the Malawi investigating and prosecuting authorities to use the detail of the case files in taking forward further action. We want to see robust cases in court going forward.

But there are also 62 recommendations contained in the audit report. The government should urgently consider how to take action on these recommendations.

The Common Approach to Budget Support (Cabs) will be meeting sometime next week to review its common stand on the suspended, frozen or delayed budgetary support; with the publication of the forensic audit report, is it high time Cabs relaxed its position?

The forensic audit report’s 62 recommendations demonstrate that many improvements need to be made for there to be confidence in the government’s public financial management. However, CABS should not be seen as a one issue event or decision point. It is a process and a dialogue with a longer term partnership in mind.

Lastly, a bit of politics, Your Excellency. London had a frosty relationship with the Bingu wa Mutharika administration. We remember the inauspicious manner your predecessor exited Malawi. When President Banda came on the scene London almost embraced her as a ‘breath of fresh air’ as evidence by a flurry of high-profile visitors from White Hall. How much has ‘cashgate’ affected your confidence in the Banda administration?

We are concerned by the breadth and depth of corruption revealed in this report. Obviously, we cannot risk UK tax-payers money through government financial systems when funds are being stolen. As the forensic audit makes clear, there is much work still to be done to address the poor culture of financial management controls.

However, it is important to note that UK aid is still being delivered to Malawians through other means outside of the government financial system.

We recognise too that the losses would not have been uncovered without the determination of the Malawi government. We welcome the independent scrutiny that President Band has allowed and encourage that openness to continue. With further political will and external assistance ‘cashgate’ can still represent a landmark opportunity to turn the tide of fraud and corruption and be an example to others.

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