Malawi’s ‘Cashgate’ scandal draws attention to corruption in one of world’s poorest states
More than $2.5m siphoned off by civil servants
President of Malawi Joyce Banda: her handling of the scandal has damaged her reputation. Photograph: Andrew Cowie/Getty Images
The optimists believe Malawi’s so-called “Cashgate” scandal might herald a new beginning, a new democratic dispensation that would end the corruption and culture of authoritarianism that has plagued the country. It is unlikely this will happen in time for next year’s 50th anniversary independence celebrations, but the election in March might be the start.
Others, meanwhile, are angry, but simply shrug at the inevitability of it all.
Cashgate refers to more than $2.5 million (€1.85 million) that is believed to have been siphoned off by some civil servants over the past two months. The scandal, described as looting, theft and plunder by Malawi’s press, has damaged the reputation of the president, Joyce Banda, who initially handled the crisis appallingly.
When she realised the need to be seen to do something, Banda fired her entire cabinet. The move was almost universally welcomed, though one columnist predicted that all bar one or two would be reappointed, and those not reappointed would be given diplomatic posts.
Banda replaced the authoritarian Bingu wa Mutharika less than a year ago. She was a vice-president under Mutharika but has managed to appear as a new broom. She quickly repealed unpopular laws, including those that controlled the press – a press that now appears feisty and self-conscious of its role.
The president has been popular with the West, especially donor countries – Malawi is an Irish Aid priority country. She has mended strained relations with several countries, especially Britain, which has offered to help investigate the missing money.
Banda also cut down on the use of such trappings as jets and governmental limousines. This in particular was important in one of the world’s poorest countries. Aid comprises 40 per cent of the budget, half of the population live on less than a $1 a day, and more than one-tenth have HIV/Aids.
Banda floated the currency and devalued it, on the advice of international financial institutions, and consequently inflation is high.
Fast action needed
Whatever her achievements, there is little doubt Banda has to act fast. Anti-corruption police have been investigating missing government money, misuse of public money and money laundering, and a number of senior police officers have been jailed. Those investigations are ongoing.
A few weeks ago, unknown assailants shot Paul Mphwiyo, a budget officer at the ministry of finance. He is recovering in South Africa. There are seemingly no plans to bring him home in case another attempt is made on his life.