Why corruption thrives in Malawi – A case of complicit and complacent citizens

The public’s reaction to the untoward events of the past weeks in Malawi was expected. 
Malawians, as they have done for the past two decades, unanimously assigned absolute responsibility for the deterioration in integrity of the civil service to President Joyce Banda. They relegated all other actors ‘political prostitutes’ as the President’s pawns in her game.
Few Malawians have spoken of the influence and power they have in dealing with corruption. Particularly typical of the reaction is how Malawians remove themselves from the equation, discounting their influence, agency and responsibility in these matters.
A majority of the opinions are recycled views about corruption in Malawi. Most are based on what is known as ‘confirmatory bias’ phenomenon. Confirmation bias, as the term is typically used in the psychological literature and it connotes the seeking or interpreting of evidence in ways that are partial to existing beliefs, expectations, or a hypothesis in hand.corruption
In other words the analysis and conclusions most Malawians made are tailored along preconceived beliefs. The belief that the average Malawian is a blameless and helpless victim – An impotent bystander.
The fact however is that in 1992 Malawians opted for a democratic politics, a system of government in which every citizen is equal before the law and no one is above the law. Our republican constitution also limits the powers of the President.
In other words the President in a democracy does not have the absolute powers that Dr Banda had in a single party autocratic system of government. This however does not  negate the fact that the President as an individual and an institution is the most powerful entity in the country.
I refer to the limitations of the President to highlight a simple fact. Every Malawian is complicit in the decline in integrity of our government. The responsibility and agency to change our politics rests with each and every one of us, the entire society.
If Malawians are genuinely interested in a corrupt free government or a particular form of government the likelihood is that these events would have never occurred. The corruption at Capital Hill is the tip of an iceberg. They tell of a society that condones and exonerates corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. The impunity with which civil servants loot public funds confirms this. But these practices were not authored by People’s Party politics.
They have been authored and nurtured over the past two decades. A period during which integrity, accountability and civic duty has been systematically traded off for political appointments and easy money. And a period during which such trade-offs have been considered legitimate by a majority of Malawians.
Let us take a moment to consider the following;
The officers involved in the corruption sagas were inducted into this reasoning during the golden years of the post-Banda era fondly referred to a new dawn of multi-party politics. A majority of those in cabinet including the President come from a school of politics which condones ‘anyamata apa town’. These values were not cultivated in the PP era. They have a historical foundation. Huge multi-million dollar deals with Asian Malawians like Kalaria have been the norm since 1994.
Ownership of large businesses or corporations by African Malawians (legitimately or otherwise) has always been taboo. During Dr Banda’s rule the Forfeiture Act disenfranchised African Malawians. In the Bakili Muluzi’s era Press Corporation was effectively substituted by the rise to huge Indian-owned companies that paid rents to politicians and government officials.
Most Malawian politicians from this school would rather have rich Asian Malawians than fellow rich African Malawians. The DPP claimed that is wanted to grow African Malawian businesses but they were Mulhako dominated.
Worse still is that the rumours of corruption deals we hear of today concerning  were all conceived in the DPP era.
All the while, Malawians have simply decided to side with one corrupt faction over the other.
Further corruption has also survived because of our politics of exclusion. Regionalism and tribalism is the norm often referred to as ‘nde ndale za pa Malawi zimenezo’. South versus central with the north as brokers was the formula until the DPP introduced new ethnic fault-lines in the south. Muluzi’s ‘Political Engineer’ persona was all about navigating and juggling these factions.
The politics of exclusion has long been accepted as ‘ndale za ku Africa’. Since 1994 all three multi-party era presidents have come from the south.
This is no accident.
Malawians also have a fetish and fascination with leaders that suffer from a ‘messianic complex’: We love to hear leaders tell us that they will provide and save us from years of plight.
We then accord these leaders unregulated access and control to resources in the economy so they can provide for the poor masses. When they plunder it is because they must finance our political parties we say.
It is also high time that we had independent auditors carry out audits of government departments. We cannot continue with this system of having government finances being audited by civil servants. Chances of collusion are very high.
Since independence Dr Banda inherited the colonial philosophy of the Crown as a provider and proceeded to claim that ‘zonse indene za Kamuzu Banda’. In 1994 Muluzi went on to pronounce his messianic quality as ‘wokoma mtima, wopatsa‘ woyenda m’maliro ‘anyamata apatauni kumachenjela’ and more recently a more morbid form of the complex was witnessed in ‘Mose wa Lero and kutakatata (Kukhala Mzimayi sichifukwa,‘ mantras.
Again, there is a strong sense of ‘I don’t care’ among us and we take part in the weakening of governance in institutions through the “dzakwaye” mentality.
It is fair to say that there is no real independence of those in charge of governance institutions and the presidency. These freebies: how are they financed? Nobody has questioned where the resources are coming from.
In Zambia a victory at the elections can be nullified if a contestant is found guilty of splashing money to constituents. Why can’t we follow suit?
Through the years Malawians have condoned, supported and even applauded these values and practices in as long as they were perpetrated by a faction they are affiliated to. Our love of the ‘welfare state’ and skewed sense of entitlement.
Malawians seek out those leaders with the greatest promise of welfare handouts.
Our election campaigns are essentially about handouts. Our belief in ‘free’ public goods and services is no different from the rationale these corrupt officials employ.
The cabinet crisis of 1964 was all about this choice. Banda ‘the capitalist’ versus the others ‘socialists’. Fee paying for public services was what the ‘others’ differed with Banda about, so they claimed. And although Banda won the political battle, he lost the ideological one.
To reverse this decay every Malawian must rethink their role as citizens and that of the state.
It starts with choices in May 2014.
  • Dinala Mlauzi is a Nyasa Times journalist and  columnist

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