Should the Government of Malawi increase the pay of Civil Servants?

President Lazarus Chakwera making a statement

Following the K6.2 Billion COVID19 funds scandal, in which 64 people have so far been arrested by the Malawi Police as being suspended to have been involved in the plunder of the COVID19 funds, various people have opined whether the real problem we have in Malawi is that the take home pay which Civil servants receive just isn’t enough to meet the cost of living in most parts of Malawi.

The argument goes that when you factor in the basic monthly salary most civil servants receive (below Senior posts & Director levels) and excluding benefits, it simply isn’t enough to live on considering all the expenses most people incur, including house rental, vehicle fuel, school fees and other educational commitments, food, electricity, water, mobile phone data and airtime costs and alms/ financial support to relatives. They say most Malawians struggle to keep up, and that it’s not their fault. Their pay is simply too low and has not increased proportionally with inflation levels over the years, and too little has been done to correct this anomally.

Personally, I’m sympathetic to this argument and have written about it before in the past. But considering what has been revealed in the audit report of the misappropriated K6.2 Billion, it’s necessary that tough Anti-corruption measures must first be adopted before we consider increasing the salaries of civil servants. Because the last thing we need is increasing the salaries of the very same people, who have for years been intentionally misappropriating government resources for their own self enrichment.

In a 2016 paper titled The challenge of per diem misuse: Training and travel as extra pay, Norwegian researchers Tina Søreide, Ingvild Aagedal Skage & Arne Tostensen wrote a paper for the CHR. Michelsen Institute in which they said:

‘The abuse of travel and training- related payments results in excessive expenditures and in a distortion of incentives that can frustrate development efforts. Three main factors contribute to facilitating this type of practice: insufficient controls, management (dis)incentives, and donors’ role and attitudes. Strengthening controls alone is unlikely to curb this kind of abuse, the culture of “per diem hunting” needs to be changed as part of a broader reform of the civil service. Coordination among development partners can also contribute to preventing per diem abuse.’

They went on to note that:

While per diem payments are supposed to be strictly compensatory, they can become a form of additional salary (Policy Forum 2009). In countries where salaries are generally low, these extra payments can amount to a significant proportion of civil servants’ total income. As a result, civil servants may be more interested in obtaining these allowances than in the content of the activities.’

One Oxford-based Malawian Political and Social commentator, Thandie Hara, commenting on the fallout from the K6.2 Billion allowances issue wrote on her Facebook wall:

How do you expect anyone to live on MK100,000 a month in Likuni or Ntandire, when half of that will be spent on transport? “

She suggests that a cost of living assessment needs to be done for the lowest paid civil servant, such that take home pay should be sufficient to cover the basics. As a starting point, the lowest paid civil servant, be it a cleaner or a messenger should be paid no less than MK500,000 a month. According to Hara, a review of the unrealistic pay structure is necessary because currently what civil servants are paid

does not accurately reflect the cost of living, and as a result may have inadvertently made people to believe that they are justified in stealing. “

The result, she says, is that such low pay has

“… created a looting culture with no ceiling. You will be surprised that many of the people we are calling thieves, but who see themselves as honest prayerful people. They don’t recognise theft in what they or their colleagues have been doing. It’s been normal practice for underpaid people trying to survive.

A different Malawian on twitter was less forgiving

However, we need to be sober in that side by side with the prosecutions, which the President of Malawi is fully behind and has been pushing for, some ground rules need to be laid down:

  1. Sitting allowances should be abolished in their entirety. Instead a fixed temporary salary increment should be calculated and introduced only to low pay grade civil servants – which I know begs a different question as to what are “low pay grade civil servants”.
  2. Financial controls should be introduced and undertaken rigorously, with a quarterly audit of each department by external auditors. IFMIS modules that are yet to be activated in Government departments need to be switched on, and if not switched on by a certain date, the managers of those departments need to be suspended, and asked to explain why.
  3. There should be a budget for the audit of each department 4 times a year.
  4. There should be stiffer penalties for any form of misappropriation of state funding, including confiscation of personal property, so that a strong deterrent is set to scare off would be offenders.

And after all this has been done, only then can the debate on increasing civil servant salaries begin.

It’s not a popular position when so many people have been conditioned to think allowances are the way to earn a living, and no doubt there will be loud protests from some corners regarding this. Others will also ask ‘Where will the money come from?” Ofcourse from the same allowances being milked, but if that’s not sufficient my next post will fully address that question.

But it is the right and honourable thing to do, if Malawi and the Tonse Alliance Government is really serious about fiscal discipline that protects the country’s finances.

Of Ethics, Rashid Gaffar & Government sanctioned Extortion

There is one little known Tonga Proverb that says : “Yo waswela mviheni wariyengi”. It translates ~: “A person who delays correcting things will end up crying.” It means that a solution taken earlier on, can save one from a much bigger problem down the line.

This Tonga proverb is relevant because of the recent comments by the new Minister of Mining Rashid Gaffar, who has been embroiled in a scandal involving the sale of buses to former president Peter Mutharika.

For those who are not familiar with this story, here’s a background: Former president, Peter Mutharika, in an attempt to lure voters to vote for his party in the June elections re-run promised to buy state of the art buses for two of Malawi’s biggest football clubs, Mighty Be Forward Wanderers and Nyasa Big Bullets. At the time, Mutharika claimed that he would be paying for the buses with his own money. However, it later transpired that the money for the buses came from the Malawi Government. Further, it was revealed that contrary to popular belief, the buses were sold to the government at nearly twice their price?!

As would be expected, Malawians were outraged. How can the former president lie to Malawians? How could Gaffar, a former DPP member of Parliament for Blantyre Kabula Constituency, agree to sell the buses at an extortionate price, which he knew was nearly twice the market price for the buses? How ethical were his actions? Did Gaffar knowingly overcharge for the buses because DPP functionaries were going to get a backhander cut from the deal? And critically, why did the new president, Lazarus Chakwera, select such a controversial and insenstitive figure to be in his cabinet as minister of mining? So many questions.

What made the situation worse are the comments Gaffar made afterwards when questioned about the deal.

In an interview with the Nation- a local newspaper in Malawi, Rashid Gaffar said that the “desperate” buyer (Mutharika) bought the buses on normal business terms of willing buyer, willing seller, and that Mutharika could have told him “if he were not satisfied with the price.”

He said the story should be to ask the former president if he bought the buses using his own money (as he claimed) or whether he used government money.

He also said “By the way, I have four more buses and they could be sold at an even higher price. Asafuna Asiye”

This smacks of total disregard to the suffering and poverty which many Malawians continue to endure. It shows that Gaffar is not a conscientious person, and does not have the interests of Malawians at heart. It also shows a clear disregard for the servant leadership which President Lazarus Chakwera has been preaching. If anything, it proves that Rashid Gaffar is merely a self-serving businessman and politician who is only interested in profit, and who has no qualms extorting the state, even when millions of poor Malawians are suffering.

These are not the kinds of people to have in your cabinet under the Tonse Philosophy, when you have been talking about tackling corruption. Because what does that say about you and your Government: That you are willing to pay a blind eye to someone who clearly and unmistakably was involved in an extortionate and fradulent scheme, one that overcharged Malawians for personal gain? It’s something which the Tonse Alliance Government may live to regret, if they do not do something decisive immediately to rectify it.

President Lazarus Chakwera and Vice President Saulos Chilima need to critically re-examine Gaffar’s suitability for the Ministry of Mining portfolio. This may not be the last scandal we hear of Gaffar, and I hate to think what else he’ll screw up next, because whatever he does next will simply undermine the government’s agenda, damaging the public’s trust in the Tonse Alliance. And that’s bad for many reasons.

There are many other better qualified, less controversial, more conscientious, and more honourable people, who unlike Gaffar – have integrity, and who can serve in that role, and lead that ministry without such obtuse carelessness: The Tonse alliance government should find them and utilise them fast.

As for Gaffar himself, he needs to return the money he overcharged (K70 million) on each bus back to the government. He also needs to make a public apology. That should restore some sort of dignity and accountability to the Tonse Alliance.

Malawi’s new President has named a new Cabinet, but Malawians are not happy

The problem with political promises is that they raise expectations. And if the promiser doesn’t hit their mark to promisee’s liking, too many people get upset.

Yesterday evening, Malawi’s new president Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera announced the appointment of a 31-member cabinet. Among the appointments were old MCP stalwalts (Lingson Belekanyama – appointed minister of Local Government), UTM faces (Patricia Kaliati ~ Minister of Community Development and Social Welfare) and other newer less experienced faces (Ulemu Msungama ~ Minister of Youth and Sports; Nancy Tembo ~ Minister of Forestry and Natural Resources).

However, public opinion in Malawi gauged through comments on social media, WhatApp messages and analyses by media houses appears to show that large numbers of Malawians, including MCP and UTM supporters are not happy with the new cabinet. Sentiments range from questioning whether the ministerial appointments truly were based on merit (as Chakwera had promised all along during campaigning, and when articulating his Tonse Philosophy), to questioning why certain ministries (for example the Ministry of Gender and Children) were missing from the list of announcements? There was talk of an anti-climax to the appointments and people feeling under-whelmed by the new cabinet. Some people even mentioned that Chakwera had torn apart the widely praised inauguration speech made a few days ago by making such appointments.

Other reasons for displeasure vary from those who think that some appointments are mere reward tokens or appeasements to loyalists who supported or played a role in campaigning for the Tonse Alliance or who otherwise helped the new government on its way to power. Similarly, the presence for example of MCP vice President for the South Sidik Mia (Minister of Transport and Public Works) and his wife Abida (Deputy Minister of Lands), or of Kenny Kandondo (Minister of Health) and his sister Khumbize Kandodo Chiponda (both from the Kamuzu family) has been criticised as returning the country to the much hated and discredited era – where certain families wielded too much influence or had disproportionate control of political affairs.

There are also calls for the new government to explain why there are far too few women or young people in the new cabinet, and how the government arrived at questionable appointments such as that of People’s Party (PP) vice President Roy Kachale Banda (to the Ministry of Industry portfolio) with some people concluding that he was only appointed because he was Joyce Banda’s son, and that there were other more capable people in Malawi who can probably do a better job at that Ministry.

Other criticisms centred on how Gospel Kazako (appointed Minister of Information) would avoid a conflict of interest when he owned a Media House (Zodiak Broadcasting Station)? Similarly, questions have been raised about Rashid Abdul Gaffar (appointed minister of Mining), whose family have mining interests and also own a cement company among various businesses.

Finally, there are those who say that the cabinet is tribalist and nepostistic, in that most of the positions have gone to people in the central region; a not too different scenario as that which Peter Mutharika’s DPP was accused of, with the Lhomwe belt accounting for a disproportionate number of cabinet positions and public appointments.

However supporters of the government have quickly pointed out how some of the appointments are of people who risked it all to ensure Malawi voted for change.

In one widsely-shared post that has been doing the rounds on Facebook last night, one writer wrote in defense of the appointments that :

The President said, on choice of the cabinet, he would not look at tribe, religion, or where someone comes from, but he would choose on people’s abilities to do the jobs.We clapped hands. Now we are finding fault with the Cabinet, not because of competencies of people, but because some people are related.We talked of a cabinet “to serve” , not one that is ” rewarded” , so where is the “adya okha” attitude coming from, as if we thought being appointed a minister is a reward? If people are married or related, they do not stop being individuals. They are in parliament on merit– we found nothing wrong with that. Why should we now start pairing them? I don’t envy these ministers. They have a hard  job ahead of them to bring results from a system that has been used to mediocrity and underperformance. We won’t treat them as mini-gods, but as public servants; they won’t be allowed to reward themselves illegally in kind or cash- we will be watching; each aspect of their lives will be scrutinised by a very suspicious citizenry. I am sure the President is smart enough to know that there are potential conflicts of interest for some members of the Cabinet with regards to businesses they own. I would be surprised if mitigation measures have not been discussed already. In due course, the citizenry will want to know that these measures are in place and are satisfactory. Before  we start saying women have been given deputy positions, let us first understand the rationale, which the President is yet to explain. I once was in charge of Equality, Diversity, Inclusivity at a large university in the UK, and used to be quick to say, “few women in top positions”, until I saw how the university would struggle to get CVs from qualified women for the top positions. I also found that some women actually want a deputy role and not be the head honcho (I was deputy head of school and Associate Dean for many years and really liked these positions and did not seriously want to be Head or Dean).  We don’t know if these women are capable, want the senior positions, or are in transition and want to learn and build confidence. It does not minimise their contribution by being Deputy Minister as long as they have well-defined roles. In due course some may gain the experience and confidence to manage the politically charged ministerial positions, or choose to be deputy. I am reserving judgement on that. I will give the President, VP,  and all cabinet ministers the chance to demonstrate their competencies, or lack of. I will assess them by what they achieve in their duty to us the citizens, by their Integrity, Fairness, Inclusivity, and Ethical conduct. Anything else is a waste of time.

It will be interesting to see how the Tonse Alliance government responds to these criticisms and expressions of support. Lazarus Chakwera had previously said he would not look at tribe, religion or where someone came from when determining selection to his cabinet.

The Tonse Alliance is made up of 9 political parties.