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.


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.

Some Malawians are joining Politics for the wrong reasons

The 20th May general elections of Malawi consisted of three major political families all vying for the seat of the presidency. On one side there were the Mutharikas, on the other side there were the Muluzis and somewhere in the other corner were the Bandas. Distinctly different from this family centric crowd and very much an outsider was  Lazarus Chakwera and the Malawi Congress Party (MCP).

The three political parties, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the United Democratic From (UDF), and the Peoples Party (PP) all promised prosperity for the people of Malawi. However, the structure of Malawian political parties looks increasingly to be made up of political families who are chosen because of affiliation rather than merit. This sort of political selection leaves questions as to the credibility of some of the politicians, because a good number of them are only employed because their relatives hold senior positions in and around the executive.

Politicians are like modern-day pastors in that the prevailing ideology has entrusted them with a job which in theory can be likened to bringing salvation to the people of the world. Politics is about bringing change for countries and helping those that are helpless and living in abject poverty. Whether for good or ill, Politics has also been about ensuring that those who hold power and resources, get to keep that power, and those resources. But all good Politicians have to be patriotic, strong-willed, selfless, truthful and compassionate in the face of global societal problems. Michael Ignatieff , Edward R. Murrow Professor of Practice at Harvard’s Kennedy School writes,

All the best reasons for going into politics never really change: the desire for glory and fame and the chance to do something that really matters, that will make life better for a lot of people. You have to be one of those people with outsized, even laughable ambition, who want their convictions to mean something more than smart conversation at dinner tables. You have to have a sense of vocation, a belief that something must be done and that you’re the person to do it.

The problem we have with Malawian politicians is that most of them never had a calling to become politician. Most of them just became politicians because of circumstances and opportunities that came their way. Most of all, some people in Malawi take politics as a means to an end of all their financial problems. Some Malawian politicians think more of the perks that come with the job than the job they were entrusted with by the electorate – who are always seeking the right individuals to govern them. Further, most of our politicians who are in power or in the opposition parties are usually handed the opportunity to become a politician on a silver platter.

hand-634689_640In an article titled ‘Barack Obama: how an unkown senator became president of USA‘, Robert McGuigan Burns details how Obama from an early age at Harvard embodied leadership qualities. An excerpt from the article describing Obama’s early achievement at Harvard University and how he turned down a high-paying job to work with the community.

After finishing High School he would study at Columbia University in New York before later going to gain a law degree from Harvard University. It was at Harvard that, somewhat portentously, Obama became the first African American President of the Harvard Review. Moreover, Obama’s co-workers, notably John Owens, were already noting Obama’s presence and power early in his career. In a Boston Globe article from 1990, Owens described: “…this guy (Obama) sounds like he’s president of the country already…” (Matchan, 1990). Obama chose to decline a high paying corporate law job in favour of a small civil rights firm and continue his work in the community, later entering politics (Bacon, 2005: pp 60).

In contrast to our politicians, how many Malawian politicians have such backgrounds where they dedicate years of their lives to work with the community from an early age? How many Malawian politicians can claim to have turned down a life-changing opportunity to work with people for a meagre salary? To understand the needs of those at the bottom. To build an informed picture of what the country truly needs?

Let us talk of our current president Peter Mutharika. Professor Mutharika worked at the prestigious Washington University for about 40 years where he was a professor at law. One of the colleagues at the Washington University had this to say about Professor Mutharika when they heard he was involved in politics in Malawi,

“I guess what’s surprising is he was a quiet man in class,” said attorney John Kozyak, one of Mutharika’s first law students at Washington University in 1971, and now a friend. “So it was surprising to me a couple of years ago when I was looking on the news and saw that he had thousands of people come out to rallies for him and he was dressed in some sort of (ceremonial) garb. I never saw him in anything other than a black or gray or blue suit. I never thought of him as a real African politician.”

Indeed Mutharika today is the president of Malawi at 74 years of age. Peter Mutharika was drummed up to be the leader of DPP through his brother’s presidency. I would strongly argue that had Bingu Wa Mutharika, Peter’s brother had failed to win the 2004 general elections, It is highly doubtful whether Peter Mutharika would have seen the light of day as President of Malawi. The argument is that Peter Mutharika became a politician by chance. Primarily because his brother was handpicked as UDF’s candidate, and subsequently became the president of Malawi. Peter Mutharika did not join politics of his own conviction and drive. I don’t believe that for the 40 years that he was in the USA he at any point seriously planned to become a politician in Malawi at the age of 65. If he did, then the evidence is nowhere to be seen. No political articles written, no evidence of serious participation in Malawian or other political Pan African organisations in the diaspora. Nothing.

A similar scenario applies to Atupele Muluzi whose father Bakili Muluzi was the first democratically elected president of Malawi in 1995. The young Muluzi, having little political experience in the form of a parliamentary seat, came out of nowhere, to head the United Democratic Front, when there were other senior individuals with substantially more experience, and who had been in the party for many years, some since its inception in 1992. This incident splintered the party, and saw the exit of some bigwigs, the likes of Brown Mpinganjira. Others claimed Atupele would be used as a puppet by his father Bakili, who Malawians will remember failed to change the constitution of Malawi to allow him to serve for a third presidential term. The senior Muluzi rejected this allegation.

Similarly, the current member of parliament for Zomba Malosa  Roy Kachale Banda, whose mother Joyce Banda took over the reins of power after Bingu Wa Mutharika’s sudden death, arguably joined politics only because his mother became president. It’s probable that his parliamentary campaign was financed by funds which only became available due to his mother’s elevated profile. In any case, Joyce Banda has been active in politics since 1999, winning the same Zomba Malosa constituency Roy now represents. Why didn’t Roy join politics earlier?

There have been several other examples.

Therefore, it is not rash to conclude that a considerable number of individuals that join politics in Malawi, do it for the wrong reasons. If a member of a family joins politics, it is common that cousins, sons, daughters, uncles or aunts, all suddenly have the conviction to help serve in an official capacity, under the totally convenient pretext that they want to ‘develop the country together with their relative’ who happens to be in power. Consequently, these become helpers, assistants and other officials around the corridors of power. And while one may argue that if the rules or constitution does not explicitly prohibit employment of  family or relatives then it shouldn’t be a problem, but what about a conflict of interests? What does it say of our politics? Further, when Malawi has suffered from tribalism and neopatrimonialism for many years, how justifiable is such behaviour?

cardsI believe that political and leadership skills in general are skills that either have to be learned, and or have to be honed over the years of someone’s life. One cannot just wake up one day and decide to become a politician. The awakening of politicians usually happens earlier in life where one decides to dedicate his/her life to help others through politics. It is delusional if not dangerous for anyone to consider themselves a politician just because a father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, sister, brother, aunt or uncle has or had a position in the government at some point.

As things stand in Malawi at the moment, cronyism is the biggest recruiter of politicians, when it should have been patriotism and a desire to improve people’s lives inspiring selfless individuals to be a part of change. This is why political parties in Malawi are run as if they are family entities, complete with wedding receptions of relatives at State House almost every year.

DPP has had two Mutharikas at the helm. UDF has had two Muluzi’s at the helm. AFORD has had two Chihanas at the helm and we are yet to see the next leader of PP after Joyce Banda. My guess is he or she will be dynastically linked to Joyce Banda. Even MCP in John Tembo had a leader who was arguably connected by a dynastic ‘family’ tie to Dr Kamuzu Banda via Cecilia Kadzamira.

However this is not to argue that one cannot become a politician when a relative or family member has been in top government positions. The intentions are the issue here. My argument lies in the manner in which politically affiliated individuals ascend to roles of power when their lives previously had nothing to do with politics.

(Edited by S Nkhwazi)

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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.