Trial by jury not judge ideal for Malawi ‘Cashgaters’

Later this month, Malawians are expected to turn out for nail-biting presidential, parliamentary and local polls.

But they will walk into the voting booth without one piece of crucial information.

This will be so because the UK decided it would be prudent to insert itself in the electoral process.

Last year, after a failed assassination attempt on Malawi government’s budget director in the Ministry of Finance — they say he was an anti-corruption crusader — it was discovered that millions of dollars belonging to Malawians were stolen from government coffers. The people did not know that they had been paying for services that were not provided by entities owned by individuals with close ties to the ruling party.

Suspects walk in shame covering their face
Suspects walk in shame covering their face

If donors had elected not to do anything, Malawi could simply have ignored local calls for action and the issue could have died a natural death because there is a serious lack of political will to ensure that investigations of this nature are done thoroughly, conclusions reached and action taken.

Fortunately, the UK stepped in and financed a forensic audit of government books. After a British firm finished its work, names of those involved were suppressed much to the disappointment of Malawians.

The UK says releasing the names would prejudice the administration of justice and Malawians cannot do anything about it because one who pays the piper calls the tune. Without a doubt, the former colonial master wants certainty after the May elections and that objective can apparently only be achieved by having President Joyce Banda at the State House.

The UK has not forgotten how it was treated by Banda’s predecessor Bingu wa Mutharika who deported its envoy after calling the president an autocrat.

Banda, who was inaugurated as president after Mutharika’s unexpected death in 2012, quickly mended fences with the UK, Malawi’s main benefactor, and started implementing reforms as demanded by the International Monetary Fund, a global lender. Mutharika, an economist, had resisted devaluing the currency, saying the poor would suffer most.

The UK embraced Banda, Malawi’s first female president and Africa’s second female head of state in modern times. UK’s former premier Tony Blair became an advisor to Banda but the honeymoon was short. Blair and his team of consultants quit as details of the corruption scandal spread.

As Banda will be squaring off against the late Mutharika’s younger brother, Peter, representing Democratic Progressive Party; Lazarus Chakwera for the Malawi Congress Party and Atupele Muluzi of the United Democratic Front this month, the cases of those involved in the corruption scandal known as ‘Cashgate’ will be far from resolution.

It is hard not to think that everything has been done to ensure that the outcome does not affect the elections. Through insider leaks to the media, people can only guess of what actually happened. A report confirming their suspicions would likely deal a decisive blow to President Banda’s chances of winning the election. The slight edge the incumbent holds in the unofficial surveys conducted could be due to the fact that the cases have not been resolved.

And regarding the trials, this author believes Malawians would have been better served with a jury system.

The way it is now, ‘Cashgate’ suspects could easily buy their freedom. They have hired the best lawyers money can buy in a country where the majority cannot afford a private lawyer. The suspects will go before a judge who goes by fact and decides on matters of law and procedure.

In a jury trial, members of the community act as fact finders and after hearing both sides, they decide based on how persuasive each side was which sounds more like emotions influencing their ultimate decision.

It is true that smart lawyers try everything to get their client off the hook thus you want a judge, not a jury, to independently decide on credibility of evidence provided but still what should not be forgotten is that judges can be manipulated to decide a case in a certain way.

While you want an impartial system when delivering justice, you also want a justice system that will protect those who could be taken advantage of. It is disheartening that white collar criminals often get off easily and the lesson others learn is to continue doing the same. They conclude rightly that they too would get slapped on the wrist after getting caught.

‘Cashgate’ effects have been devastating. Donors decided to hold on tightly to their money which hit hard those who rely on government services. To the majority of these people it is a life or death situation yet those who stole the money only get to hear about it since they do not go to the same ill-equipped hospitals where everybody goes.

This is why you need people — trial by jury — and not a judge to decide the fate of ‘Cashgaters’.

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