Monday, November 11, 2013

Why we should brace ourselves for more cashgates

Regardless of what happens to President Joyce Banda in May 2014, she will go down in Malawi’s historical record as a president for whom lightning struck twice. The first time was on Saturday 7th April when she was suddenly and unexpectedly thrust onto the stage as the fourth president of the Republic of Malawi. The second was on Friday 13th September when the Malawi government’s Budget Director, Paul Mphwiyo, was shot and seriously wounded, prising open secrets of massive plunder of government cash that has been going on for years.

Bitter fruits of cashgate. Photo credit: Steve Sharra

The metaphor of lightning striking twice for Mrs Joyce Banda is apt here because on two occasions, she has been given the “reset” button to click and chart a new path for the nation. Historical legacies for presidents don’t take shape for several years, so it will be a while before we know whether Mrs Joyce Banda did click “reset” or not. But by the time we know, there may have been a few more cashgates. And here’s why.

In the Out of Turn column of Saturday 2nd November, 2013, Malawi News “Guest Writer” laid out a five-point plan for how Malawi as a nation could move on from cashgate. The key argument from Guest Writer was that if we handled cashgate with wisdom and care, Malawi “could be corruption free” in the “next couple of years.” I have made optimism for Malawi, and for the continent my life philosophy (Afrika Aphukira), but it’s not for a simplistic feel-good factor. It takes a lot of energy, anger and yes, pessimism, to generate optimism for this country and for this continent. But it’s well worth the effort, in the end.

Guest Writer is a kindred spirit in sharing optimism. But s/he has set the bar a bit low. Guest writer is basing his/her optimism that Malawi could be corruption free on the fear of consequences if someone is caught. Fear of a law that works and a law enforcement that is efficient is indeed enough of a disincentive for a would-be offender. But the rich and powerful always find a way to make the law work for them. They make the law. They make it in such a way that they can get away with murder.

President Joyce Banda has been unequivocal in stressing that no one will be spared, and that includes her family and children, as she told members of the clergy recently. Personally, I want to believe her, but I also realise what a revolutionary act that would be. Were she to allow full justice to take its course, she would be the figurative embodiment of kadziwotche, the insect which flies too close to the fire and gets burned in the process. I would like to sample the percentage of Malawians who believe the president when she says no one will be spared. The pessimists have a solid history to draw from.

But it’s the question of root causes of why cashgate happened that ought to exercise the toughest sinews of our muscles. Thus far pundits have listed greed, a lack of patriotism, a faulty IFMIS, spiritual decay, the destruction of ethics in public service, the politicisation of the civil service, a thoughtless transition from dictatorship to democracy, and unethical politicians looking for campaign cash, as some of the reasons that led to cashgate.

In order to do a good job digging up the root causes, we need to distinguish two things. What aspects of cashgate are pure personal greed and nothing more? That’s one thing. What aspects of cashgate reveal an inability by our political parties to raise funds to keep parties on their feet and effectively participate in national elections? That’s another thing. Each problem has its own unique solution.

The greed is a manifestation of both social inequalities that have infested over decades, and a spirit of avarice in a society where material wealth is the ultimate pursuit. The resulting inequality has bred huge resentments among social classes. Social inequality thrives in capitalist systems where the class divide is enormous. This is true of Malawi as it is of many countries. The few tens of thousands of Malawians who are gainfully employed are stuck in jobs that have no career path. Workers have no hope that things will ever improve for them.

Those in managerial positions who discovered this truth quickly found a way around the problem. They accumulated privileges and benefits for themselves, and suddenly catapulted themselves into a whole new social class. Such benefits included huge salaries, free school fees for their children, ownership of houses in affluent suburbs, health care, and ownership of expensive cars that become personal property after a certain loan period. For groups who can’t accrue such benefits and perks for themselves, they watch all this and find their ways of fighting back.

The problem of fundraising for parties indeed goes back to the transition from dictatorship to democracy. This is a much less discussed topic in Malawian politics. But it could very well lie at the root of why cashgate happened, why it was not the first time, and why it will not be the last time. It seems Malawian political parties have no financial stability outside state coffers, a point made in a 3rd April 2012 article by Jimmy Kainja, and revealed in a number of studies.  

Kainja observed at the time that it was “no coincidence that in Malawi it is only a ruling party that always has resources to buy and distribute political party materials: t-shirts, party cloth, bicycles, etc.” A Global Integrity article of 13th April 2012 hoped that the ascendancy of Joyce Banda to the presidency provided an opportunity for a fresh start in addressing problems of political corruption once and for all. In its May 2012 report titled Overview of corruption and anti-corruption in Malawi, Transparency International cited “patronage and clientelist networks” as feeding corruption in Malawi’s bureaucratic and political ranks.

Therein lie the two lightning strikes for President Joyce Banda. Social inequality is creating deep rifts among Malawians, a ticking time bomb. The increasing incidents of mass violence and vandalism we are witnessing across the country daily are but a tiny ripple in the sea of resentment resulting from this inequality. That is made more complicated by how our political parties have no established means of raising funds for their very survival, rendering the entire political arena a charade and a get-rich-quick scheme. Unless we address the fundamental causes of the deep inequality ripping Malawian society apart, we should brace ourselves for more cashgates. 

Note: A version of this article appears in the 'Guest Writer' column of The Malawi News of Saturday, 9th November, 2013.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

What really caused cashgate?

With over a month and a half now gone since the government financial scandal hashtagged #cashgate erupted, are we closer to understanding the underlying causes why it happened? We can classify the reasons why this happened from simplest to most complex. Going by the earliest statements that were offered in September, the simplest explanation can be caricatured as “IFMIS made me do it.” It came from commentators whose first explanation was that the Integrated Financial Management Information System was faulty.

The most complex explanation thus far as to why cashgate happened has been that we may have transitioned from one-party rule into multiparty rule without having dealt with the question as to the kind of public service ethos the new dispensation would require. This explanation is extrapolated from thoughts expressed by Jimmy Kainja,  Dr. Blessings Chinsinga, and Dr. Justin Malewezi. The biggest challenge facing us as a nation now is whether we can learn from the scandal and redefine the kind of character we want to instill into ourselves as Malawians.

A humorous take on the scandal by an anonymous artist

Jimmy Kainja wrote in Nyasatimes in the first few days saying the scandal was “a symptom of a rotten nation.” He traced the roots to Dr. Bakili Muluzi’s rule between 1994 and 2004. The word “rotten” has also been used by Martha Kwataine in an interview with the Weekend Nation of 26th October. She says “We are a nation that is rotten and rated very low internationally in as far as patriotism is concerned.”

In the same issue of the Weekend Nation Dalitso Kubalasa maintains the corporal imagery used to describe the degeneration of a living being. He says the scandal shows that “our society is sick.” Writing in the Daily Times of Wednesday 30th October, Dr. DD Phiri attributes the massive looting of money at Capital Hill to “greed.” There are politicians and civil servants who do not wish the country well, he writes. They only care for their personal wealth.

Wonders Dr. Justin Malewezi in The Nation of 30th October: “How can people be so greedy and so thoughtless about others?” He argues that something was lost in the transition. He harks back to the civil service he worked in during the one party era, which was characterised by three ethical pillars: respect for hierarchy, merit, and teamwork. He says all three pillars were destroyed at the onset of multiparty rule, when government introduced the “contracts” system. With this system, people can now join the civil service from outside and ride over the heads of several long serving officers. That killed the respect for hierarchy, merit and teamwork.

Innocent Chitosi (Malawi News, 26th October) is worried that we are “grappling with the symptoms and overlooking the causes.” He puts the finger on “unethical politicians who want fuel for their party rallies or cash to splurge during the rallies.” Agreeing with him is Ephraim Nyondo who believes that the president has known about corruption in government from her previous cabinet positions, but chose not to raise the alarm until Paul Mphwiyo was shot (Nation on Sunday, 27th October).

He does not see the current cabal as capable of rooting out the rot: “This is why the future of Malawi hardly rests in this crop of post-colonial vampires of politicians. They need to be wiped out for good so that we start a rethink of this country.” Reminds one of “Prophet” Joseph Nkasa’s latest hit which says a vehicle that has damaged a road cannot be used to repair the same road. You need a D7.

But Dr. Chinsinga sees a silver lining in the cashgate cloud. He says “cashgate presents a very rare opportunity to raise and confront squarely bigger and potentially epoch making national questions  . . . The nation is ripe for tough and bold decisions from the political class.”

Two questions need some honest answers from us all. First: why did some sections of our society give up on the country to the extent revealed in the looting and plundering? The answer to that question needs to include what can be done to restore hope and what Martha Kwataine calls ‘patriotism’ in us all. Second: what did we miss during the transition that led to political parties that seem incapable of financing their campaigns outside state coffers?

Speaking to leaders of faith-based organisations last week, the president struck a rare tone in candid talk. She said neither her family members, nor her very own children, would be shielded in the investigations currently underway.  But dealing with the looting of state coffers once and for all and ensuring it never happens again requires going beyond the present scandal. It requires an extended, deeper discussion of what really led to the scandal, and whether indeed this can be seen as a defining moment for a fundamental re-examination of what kind of Malawi we would like to shape. 

Note: A version of this article appears on the My Turn column in The Nation of Wednesday, 6th November, 2013. An account of how the scandal broke started can be found on the Global Voices Online website.