Festive Banter: Discussing the Politics in Malawi with Family


So the festive season is well underway, and one peak (Christmas) has just passed. Another is on the horizon. But as is the case for many people, Christmas being a celebration of the birth of baby Jesus, is traditionally also the time that one meets with friends and family. Inevitably, such meetings involve a whole lot of banter.

Yesterday evening I found myself in the good and friendly company of two gentlemen who form part of my extended family and who live just outside of Manchester. Even though their families live about 10 -12 minutes drive away from my place, I’d not seen them and their families for months, and was keen to catch up with them. The two gentlemen are sensible folk, educated (in Malawi and the UK) and hold good degrees from  good Universities. They are both employed in excellent professions, and I look up to them.

Predictably, at some point during the chat, talk turned to events in Malawi. A few notable and interesting points in our discussion are worth highlighting, and I’ve tried to capture them below:

1. The plunder of Public Resources in Malawi couldn’t solely be the doing of the current PP government, its officials, or civil servants who are PP supporters.

So, the public officials who have been caught in  the act, how many are they across the country? How long have they been embezzling funds from government coffers? They must have noticed their seniors embezzling or involved in some theft for the theft to become endemic? Surely you can’t just get into a system and begin stealing unless you’ve seen others doing it? But surely they couldn’t all have been PP supporters? Or were they?

2. There is a bad culture in Malawi that puts pressure on Politicians to give handouts (cash, live stock, clothes and suchlike)

As far as we could tell, this culture began after Bakili Muluzi and others started campaigning under UDF, when the 1993 referendum had voted overwhelmingly in favour of multi-party politics in Malawi.

During our discussion, the term ‘Bakilism’ popped up, which I thought was quite appropriate because before this, no politician in Malawi’s one party dictatorship of Dr Kamuzu Banda had publicly sought support from the people by offering gifts of money. In preparation for the elections, it is widely known that Muluzi borrowed large sums of money from well-wishers and others, in order to finance the election. In the process, patronage began to be bought, and even though Muluzi is known to have been a genuinely kind man, the ‘distribution’ of money to chiefs, movers and shakers and the masses (before and after the election) went a bit too far. The result is that from then onwards, chiefs, supporters and others who come to political rallies expect politicians to give them money or some other handouts.

This cultural shift has become so bad that if a politician does not spend money, giving to chiefs, village headmen or the people, the politician is branded as stingy, and will lose support of these chiefs who are usually very influential in the rural areas. Apparently, a number of people have lost primaries and subsequent election as independent candidates precisely because of this, so much so that there are politicians in Malawi unconcerned about policy but wholly concerned about offering money or handouts.

In another form, there are an increasing number of people who will not even attend free charitable or educational events unless there is an allowance to be received.

3. Joyce Banda may have taken advantage of this bad culture in travelling extensively to distribute livestock, money, houses, etc.

Where exactly is the demarcation between the Malawian president doing something for the national good (i.e. for the people, whether they support the PP party or not) or doing it in order to gain support for herself as a PP presidential candidate (for the 2014 elections) and the PP political party?

In other words, taking the example of the Mudzi Transformation Trust, is it only PP supporters who benefit from the gift of a new house, livestock, or cash-handouts, or are non-PP supporters eligible for the program/ handouts?

The reason why this question must be answered is that if it is government funds which are being used for the Mudzi Transformation Trust, then it would be illegal (i) if only PP supporters are benefitting from the initiative (because government funds are not only for PP) and (ii) it would be illegal for Joyce Banda to use her position as president to portray a false image that it’s the PP party (as opposed to the Malawian government) which is funding the initiative, all in the name of votes.

4. Corruption, greed and a ‘Self-centeredness’ within Malawian governments (past and present) are partly caused by low salaries and low pensions

Salaries in Malawi are generally low, and while politicians earn considerably more than the average civil servant, given the high cost of living, and ‘adopted lifestyles’ when people get into public office, the salaries are quite small compared to global standards ( if such a thing can be said to exist)

So, post-cashgate, imagine if a cabinet minister or government official knew that after his successful, honorable and commendable stint as a minister / government official he would be guaranteed a decent pension; in such circumstances, would the minister / official still be under pressure to ‘self-enrich’ ( see examples of ministers awarded contracts, here  and here) at the expense of the tax payer,  donors or national development initiatives?

Let us assume that during his public service, the official  or minister has achieved some measurable and remarkable achievements in the national good, achievements that have developed and tangibly improved Malawi. During that time, there has not been a single act of impropriety, nepotism, self-enrichment, corruption , fraud, or any act that could be said to have created a conflict of interest and tarnished his reputation or integrity; that the official has done his job extremely well.

Don’t you think in such circumstances, there would be a stronger interest for the officials to abide by the rules, and do things cleanly, if it is known that a ~ US$500 a month (which is considerable in a country where the majority of the population, including most civil servants earn less than $200 a month) ‘state pension’ or prize for the following 10 years after exemplary service was awaiting them?

In our discussion, my family members appeared to think this way, and I agree, although not without reservations; Since we are nowhere near the day when politicians / officials in Malawi will do their job properly irrespective of allowances or any financial reward, and since we are nowhere near the day when there will be strong institutions that govern against impropriety, nepotism, self-enrichment, corruption , fraud, or any act that could be said to have created a conflict of interest  I’d say this proposal is a pretty good alternative, for now.

Because while an excellent president can stake their hopes on the Mo Ibrahim Foundation Prize and other such commendatory prizes for presidential excellence, there’s very little else that rewards good public service of an official, or at ministerial level or even for a civil servant such as a nurse working in a government hospital.

Thus, since politicians will generally spend a lot of money to get nominated, in their capacity as MP’s, ministers or top officials, as has been explained in point 2 above, there is a constant pressure to make money not only for self (after their stint in government / public service), but also for ‘distribution’ in consolidating power and maintaining support.

It sounds like an excuse for plunder, but it isn’t.

5. The Malawian government would be best advised to invest money in international markets, on behalf of a State Pension Fund similar to the proposed initiative above.

As an example, if such a fund had been created in 1980 (during the one party dictatorship), and had invested US$1 million into Apple Computer Inc, that investment according to this link would have been worth $144 million in August 2011.

And in case you think the concept of Dr Banda’s dictatorship (maybe via an investment arm of Press Corporation) purchasing shares in a fast growing American company is too far-fetched to be plausible, what about say in 1997, when the internet age had already began, and during the presidency of Bakili Muluzi, if the Malawian government invested $1 million into Apple Inc? According to this link on the Los Angeles Times, that investment would in April 2010 have been worth ~ $58 million, like above, considerable sums which can sustain hundreds of top performing civil servants for a number of years. Another source on MSN money here agrees.

While some people think the new pension tax reforms (some more info here) are detrimental to pension funds, my point is that a huge and sustainable Pension Fund can be created by smart investments in a number of promising or fast growing industries.

In our time, clean energy (including Biofuels) , companies developing new super materials and other techie outfits are most probably a good bet to buy into, and the best of these will only increase in value in the nearby future. While I’m not an investment analyst, I know that the trick is spotting them early.

Other Pension funds across the world are already investing into technology, an act which could realise them huge financial rewards in the coming years. Among such Pension Funds investing into technology is the Government Pension Fund of Norway, one of the largest Pension Funds in the world.

But of course hindsight is a great thing…

6. Malawian leaders are appointing the wrong people into positions of power, to gain political support, and not necessarily based on merit

Are you elevating someone to a ministerial level or to become vice president because they are capable individuals, and can achieve important goals for the national good, or are you doing it because you want to win an election?

The view reflected in our discussion was that people like Chris Daza (I don’t know him), who are smart and have been exposed, should be utilised in positions where they will be most effective, and not just be ‘appendaged’ to the cabinet for public relation’s sake.

Further, on this same point, as I have laboured on this blog several times, my family agrees that Joyce Banda is surrounded by the wrong kind of advisers, so much so they think Malawian political advisers (both in the ruling party and opposition parties) are some of the worst in the world. It’s the bad decisions, which are clearly having a negative effect on governance, and apparently, even educated folk, who should know better, and whose decisions should reflect their knowledge, are sadly behaving uncharacteristically, to the detriment of the country.

On a similar note, despite the much-lauded new leadership, there has not been a clear manifesto of development from ranks of MCP. In fact Lazarus Chakwera is being accused – by some of his former henchmen – of being too reliant on his church advisers than on his political advisers. DPP has been largely silent over the Cashgate scandal, and few people know what their development plan is, besides trying to finish what Bingu started. Peter Mutharika has not given out a clear economic plan of what DPP will do, why they will do such, and the actual (not estimates plucked out of the air) benefit of such a plan. Even the noise that UDF has been making lately has not been heard far enough, and their economic plan is also questionable. All in all, there was a general dissatisfaction with the actual substance each of the political parties were offering for the 2014 elections.

7. The way Aid is provided in Africa requires a fundamental shift

Picture this; say the DFID, who it must be said do an incredible job in third world countries (see these amazing pictures on Flickr), have identified the need for a hospital in rural Kasungu, in the central region. Why can’t Parliament empower aid organisations to be able to put out a tender, and disburse the funds of the construction of the hospital directly to the constructor, and not via government bank accounts? Wouldn’t that ensure that aid gets to where it is needed most? Wouldnt that minimise the probability of embezzlement of funds?

I believe in view of the Cashgate Scandal, procurement rules should be changed to ensure that as many of the loopholes in public expenditure are closed shut. A part of this process must involve institutions, including aid organisations working directly with the people, bypassing the arms of the government mostly at risk.

8. There is an accute lack of high calibre leadership in Malawi

As I stated here, the quality of leadership is a big problem in Malawi. And while on paper some politicians look good, when you meet them and talk to them, you quickly realise they are not leadership material. Not in a JFK or Kwame Nkrumah visionary kind of way. That is a worrying indictment for Malawi because it seems our politicians are not getting better, instead they are getting worse… and how can you expect excellence from ill-equipped leaders who are ill-prepared for leadership?

9. It’s encouraging to see more younger politicians vying for public office

The likes of Sosten Gwengwe, James Nyondo, even Atupele Muluzi (and others mentioned here) could spell the dawn of a new age of Malawian politics. Malawi needs more young people in politics, and far less old people than is currently the case.

Let the oldies, the likes of Harry Thomson, retire to the villages, to undertake farming, advise younger and upcoming politicians, teach culture to the younger generation, and generally be a non-political force for unity and cohesion within communities in Malawi, dependable pillars of wisdom in the community, and not dabble about in politics.

10. Malawi needs a civil war

This is a hard one, and I don’t agree with this point at all. But one of my family members mentioned it as something he heard in a discussion with someone else. I have encountered this view several times now, and while I’m not fully convinced that we’ve tried everything else to rectify the problems that we have in Malawi, some people think that for the poisonous culture, greed and rampant corruption to be completely rooted out, a war must happen…. effectively a blood sacrifice. I’m not too sure about that.

All in all, an interesting discussion.



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