Malawi’s self-enriching officials need to know they will be judged not just by an imperfect judicial system, but by generation upon future generation of their compatriots.
High-level corruption has long been endemic in Malawi, but two important changes provide promising signs of this being challenged.
The first is the attitude of President Peter Mutharika towards the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB). Unlike former president Bingu wa Mutharika, who led the country from 2004 to his death in 2012 and who was Peter’s brother, the current President Mutharika is not actively obstructing the ACB’s work.
In fact, he appointed the industrious and brave Mary Kachale to be his Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), and the DPP and ACB are reportedly working without obvious political interference from the top – though how long this will last is anybody’s guess.
The second shift happening today is that Malawi’s political culture of secrecy looks to be weakening. In his three decades in office, Malawi’s first president, Hastings Banda, put a strong emphasis on deference. The motto of his Malawi Congress Party (MCP) – now the main opposition – was “Unity, Loyalty, Obedience, and Discipline”, and one of his legacies has been a lack of transparency. However, there are suggestions that this culture is beginning to break down in the Lilongwe High Court where high-level fraudsters are starting to spill the beans under plea-bargaining arrangements.
The case those in court are speaking out about – and which the DPP and ACB have their hands full with – is the huge government scandal known as “Cashgate”. In this long-term case of high-level fraud, millions of dollars of public money were channelled into private accounts through construction companies that provided the government with bills, but no services.
The details are only beginning to emerge, but as the stakes get higher and the sense of outrage grows, Malawi’s peaceful atmosphere is becoming tainted by resentment and violence. Three years ago, Paul Mphwiyo, the former Budget Director at the Ministry of Finance and the man now named by Kachale as the Cashgate “mastermind”, survived a murder attempt. (Mphwiyo implicated former Justice Minister and prominent lawyer, Ralph Kasambara.) Furthermore, this July, the bullet-riddled body of the ACB Director of Corporate Affairs, Issa Njauju, was found in Lilongwe next to his burned out car.
Lucius Kondowe, ACB’s director, admits that his officers are “terrified”, and Cashgate witnesses are now insisting on armed guards.
A history for the future
As the full scale of Cashgate emerges, it is provoking some wider reflections in Malawi on national identity and public responsibility. This most recent scandal saw officials use their public office to enrich themselves massively, but this phenomenon is far from unique in the country as the record of its presidents shows.
Starting with Hastings Banda, an investigation found that he had accumulated at least $320 million in personal assets while in office. His successor Bakili Muluzi, who ruled from 1994 to 2004, had been a small-time businessman but also lived in great opulence as president. He faced corruption charges after stepping down, but as a Commonwealth special envoy, he is now supping with the notorious king of Swaziland and his teenage wives. His prosecution for financial wrongdoing is losing momentum, while his son, Atupele, is a cabinet minister in Peter Mutharika’s government.
The next man, Bingu wa Mutharika, a former taxi driver, commissioned a vast private palace while in the top job. Located in Thyolo and built for Bingu by a grateful Portuguese roads-contractor, the residence towers like a stranded white whale over the neighbouring houses of poor tea-estate workers. Brother Peter inherited the property.
Meanwhile, the colourful Joyce Banda, who completed a brief term from 2012 to 2014, now spends all her time in voluntary exile, feted by the international community but refusing to answer questions in Malawian courts about the disappearance of 24 billion kwacha ($43 million) during a mere six months of her presidency between April and September of 2013.
Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, is now being described as a kleptocracy in some circles, and international aid is drying up. The contrast between the lives of the majority of the population and elites caught with suitcases of stolen government money – not to mention those who successfully enriched themselves over years in power – are as clear to see as ever.
Malawians are now awaiting details of the latest scandal to emerge, but as they do, a deeper question is also being asked: Namely, while the country’s political leaders do not seem to fear the judicial system enough to deter them from fraud, why do they also not fear the judgement of posterity?
One possible answer to this is that Malawi’s leaders have little sense of history and their own place in it. Of course in order to tackle a culture of impunity, the country’s institutions will have to be strengthened in various ways. But at the same time, perhaps Malawian academics also need to be invited, as a matter of urgency, to write a new History of Modern Malawi – a history that will give the country’s leaders a sense of posterity to which they will one day be answerable.
A sense of the modern history of the country is lacking in Malawi, and although a new understanding of this history would not end impunity or high-level fraud, it might help create a sense of unity and highlight the fact that Malawi’s leaders are accountable to their people and their country not just now but forever more. It would remind those that might be tempted to enrich themselves to the detriment of their country that they will be judged not just by Malawi’s imperfect judicial system, but by generation upon future generation of their compatriots.
Nick Wright is the former Malawi correspondent for Africa Confidential and was previously a history lecturer at the University of Adelaide.