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

President of Malawi Joyce Banda: her handling of the scandal has damaged her reputation. Photograph: Andrew Cowie/Getty Images

Wed, Oct 16, 2013, 01:00

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.

Out on the streets of Lilongwe and Blantyre, the vibrant civil society has organised demonstrations and is demanding action.

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 She quickly repealed unpopular laws, including those that controlled the press – a press that now appears feisty and self-conscious of its role.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.

The Malawi Human Rights Commission has demanded that the president “must not only act but must be seen to be acting promptly and decisively on these issues”.

The press had a field day, demanding that Banda return from the US, where she was attending the UN.

Banda has so far refused to declare her own assets, saying she has no need to steal money as she has been a successful businesswoman since she was 21. One newspaper reported her as saying she was “swimming in money”. She also said senior ministers should not suffer because of the crimes of their juniors. She subsequently changed her mind on that one.

The press has adopted a high moral tone. The Malawi Editors Forum denounced the presence of officials and members of the president’s party at a press conference on Banda’s return to Malawi last Thursday. The Daily Times reported the Editors Forum as commending the president for holding a press conference “after some time without one”, but condemning the behaviour of members of Banda’s party and government officials who disrupted the press conference with clapping, booing and interjections. The forum said it felt this created an intimidating environment for journalists, who are asking questions “on behalf of the public’.


Fragility of life
While the political elite argue over corruption, out in the countryside, where 80 per cent of the people live, the fragility of life is obvious.

Dried riverbeds and scorched brown earth are waiting for the rains, which have been unpredictable in recent years.

The good road from the capital, Lilongwe, to lake Malawi was funded by the EU. Many villages have signs announcing a charity or NGO as being responsible for funding projects. No mechanised agricultural machinery is seen in a three-hour drive through farmland, just bullocks and manpower. Villages rely on wells, and women are seen everywhere carrying water jugs on their heads.

Food scarcity means the government relies on foreign donors so it can provide handouts of food and fertiliser. This was one reason why Cashgate stories were accompanied by either rumours of donors pulling out or denials of such rumours.

In the meantime, hospitals are short of medicine, teachers have not been paid, and universities are either on strike or threatening strike.

Banda has her work cut out if she is to win next year’s election and lead the independence celebrations.

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