Political Party funding in Malawi needs a complete overhaul

Thom Mpinganjira

Politics and money have a cunning way of accentuating the dishonest and desperate aspects of humanity.

I mean, even if Zaccheus – the archetypal taxman of the time, & physically challenged chief tax collector had been a tame, impressionable and honest man, even if he had possessed more than just a few ounces of feigned holiness, his relentless pursuit of other people’s hard earned cash, and his association with politicians, I suspect, might have hidden his amiable senses firmly away.

But if you needed further proof of the pervasive corrosiveness money has on people in politics in more recent times, then the attempted bribery court case involving Thom Mpinganjira (in which he has been found to have a case to answer) presents an excellent example.

Because if Mpinganjira is to be believed, then we have on our hands the latest manifestation of just how vulnerable our politicians in Malawi are to manipulation and influence by moneyed folk.

It’s something we’ve known for a while, and while yesterday it was the Makhumulas, the Mbewes, the Tayubs, the Ganis and a long list of wealthy Asians bankrolling aChair and his UDF, today it’s the Thom Mpinganjiras, the Simbi Phiris, the Mias, the Gaffars, the Batatawalas, the Karims, and the Mullis who play benefactor, or as Malawians like to say “Well wishers”, writing big cheques in donations or loans to keep afloat our Politicians & political parties.

The game fundamentally hasn’t changed. And that’s before we even get to the melee of private companies jostling for political favours from one abiggie or another.

Clearly this is not a sustainable situation, not least because universally it is very well understood that many of those who fund political parties often seek influence or payback in some way, whether directly or in more subtle ways. The loan or “donation” is hardly an innocent transaction.

Indeed there’s no shortage of tales of benefactors of all shades across the world who have tried to exercise influence over the leaders of political parties they finance, in order for those leaders to make decisions that favour the benefactors or their companies. In quite a few places, some cunning benefactors have even managed to land cabinet positions, if rumour of the shenanigans that happen behind closed doors is to be believed.

But what have we learned from this court case so far?

Thom Mpinganjira claims he donated around K100 million to President Lazarus Chakwera, more than K400 million to Vice President Saulos Chilima of UTM and over K950 million to the DPP, under former President Peter Mutharika. He claims that even former President Joyce Banda also received about K40 million.

If these claims are indeed true, and evidence of the transactions is produced to back his claims, it further confirms the fears of people who have for a long time decried the negative role money has played in Malawis politics; that as a nation most of our prominent politicians are still beholden to private interests.

https://twitter.com/onjezani/status/1392508272708669443?s=19

Mind you, this is all just coming out now, and was unknown to most Malawians last year – when the country was busied by street protests & the Constitutional Court (Concort) proceedings that nullified the 2019 “Tipp-Ex” Elections.

Some analysts are now saying these are the funds that were most likely channelled to finance the 2019 Parliamentary and Presidential elections (the aforementioned Tipp-Ex Elections), and the re-run of 2020.

But ultimately, it means in nearly 30 years, Malawi has not made any progress in curtailing the influence that unregulated and undeclared party funding has over our politics. It means we have failed to create transparency so that party funders are known – for accountability and to prevent conflicts of interest further down the line.

Unfortunately for all the fanfare of last year’s ConCort decision, we haven’t made much progress elsewhere.

Had there been sufficient progress in this area, then it’s highly unlikely that Thom Mpinganjira’s FDH bank would have bought Malawi Savings Bank(MSB), with it’s large debtors book, for a pittance. In fact at the time, many keen-eyed political analysts observed in despair the many irregularities surrounding the sale including just how absurdly little opposition the transaction faced, and how some of the debtors on MSB’s books were said to be the very same major financiers of political parties and other politically connected persons.

In light of these revelations, one can see why there was no chance of the MSB deal being scrutinized or facing the required oversight you would expect to take place before such a large and treasured piece of national financial infrastructure was sold, when everyone (including those who were expected to provide scrutiny) was in Mpinganjira’s pockets!

Further, and on a different level, the Bribery court case revelations hint at a present failure of our legislature, in 2020, and now 2021, to establish laws which work to protect the interests of Malawians. In this case, laws that create a fair playing field where merit & qualifications are a stronger determinant in the suitability of a Malawian to stand for public office, than the size of their “well-wisher” wallet.

Simply put, it means you can unfortunately not only buy oligarchical influence in political circles, but you can probably buy your way into parliament in today’s Malawi.

And unfortunately that’s not a good verdict for Lazarus Chakwera’s Tonse Alliance. It certainly does not inspire confidence in the Government, because many people will be asking (and rightly so), that who else has bankrolled our politicians including those in the current Tonse Alliance, who we don’t currently know about, but who we ought to know about?

But how do we solve this longstanding problem? What must be done to move towards a path where political party funding is more transparent and does not negatively influence our politics or create an environment festering with conflicts of interests?

In a future article I will try to explore these questions in more detail with a view to mapping a way to a set of solutions, including highlighting past and present key solutions suggested by others.

As Malawians, this is not an issue we can afford to continue to ignore year after year because it’s costing us. The sooner we begin to address it, the less likely we’ll have these kinds of problems haemorrhaging our politics in the future.

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