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.

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.

Malawi returns to the polls to re-elect a New President

Dr Lazarus Chakwera & Dr Saulos Chilima of the MCP-UTM Tonse Alliance

Malawi goes to the polls today for an election re-run to elect a new President, after the previous poll held in May 2019 was overturned in February this year for being marred by massive irregularities including use of corectional fluid known as Tippex.

The re-run comes amidst the COVID-19 crisis, which has had a significant impact on many countries economies. As of today, Malawi has has 803 confirmed cases with 11 deaths.
But Malawi has many other more pressing problems.

Since the start of multiparty democracy in 1994, the country has struggled to create a thriving economy with ample opportunities for it’s citizens. Poverty, Tribalism, Cronyism & Corruption are rife. The private sector is small, poorly funded and largely dependent on government contracts. There is insufficient power generation, and power cuts / blackouts are commonplace. There is high youth unemployment and few avenues of young hard-working people to escape the poverty trap.

Tobacco sales, the largest source of government revenue, have been dwindling in recent years, in part because of a successful global anti-tobacco campaign. Unfortunately, this has meant less revenue collection by the government.

Years of economic neglect, under-investment in infrastructure, lack of diversification in the economy, misuse of natural resources, plus successive phases of bad governance has led to a situation where most of Malawi’s 18 million inhabitants live hand-to-mouth, the large majority living on less than $3 a day. Consequently, women, especially those living in the rural areas comprise one of the most disadvantaged groups in Malawian society. This inevitably affects health and educational outcomes for children.

All these have made life quite unbearable for many people, and the demonstrations we saw last year and early on this year show the level of frustration in the country.

But there is Hope. However gloomy the picture is, today Malawians have a chance to voice out their frustration & change the direction of our country at the ballot box, onto a better path. One of inclusive prosperity for all irrespective of where one comes from. A path where food is affordable, hospitals have medicine and government contracts are awarded fairly and transparently. A path where promotion is based on merit not party or tribal affiliation; where here are educational opportunities for young people, and where financial institutions do not take advantage of people in financial hardship. A Malawi where there are plenty of opportunities for citizens, young entrepreneurs can take out loans with relative ease and at low interests and fighting corruption is not merely lip service. A path where tribalism, regionalism & cronyism are tackled decisevely and the interests of the country as a whole, and the collective good is put before the interests of a party, before appeasing party loyalists.

I look forward to the opening of a new chapter of hope & shared prosperity in Malawi’s history. I look forward to a thriving, growing, optimistic and vibrant Malawi.

And for the avoidance of doubt, no one is saying such will not have its own challenges.

But this blog endorses the MCP -UTM Tonse Alliance as the best Political party in Malawi right now able to heal the wounds of divisions that exist and to orchestrate the much needed changes our beloved country urgently need.
Vote #MCP-UTM #TonseAlliance. Lets make today count and welcome a new future!

Bad-mouthing a country

monkeys-47226_640The other week President Peter Mutharika of Malawi said that Malawians should not bad-mouth Malawi. That people shouldn’t say negative things about the country.

Although I see his point, in that he would like a more positive message about Malawi to be visible, especially to foreigners, I was left wondering, how can one not comment on the things that are going wrong in the country when very little seems to be done to prevent against them; when those in power come across as either not caring, or are preoccupied with self-enrichment to take serious note of the needs of the populace.

For example, not too long ago, I read an article on Malawi 24 that said students at teacher training colleges were going hungry after the government stopped giving them allowances in April. The problem the article said was centred at Machinga Teacher’s training college where student’s had not been paid their allowances and did not have money to buy food. Yesterday another news report came out saying about 2.8 million people were at risk of starvation in Malawi. It quoted an assessment of the damage caused by the recent floods, by the Malawi Vulnerability Assessment Committee (which only last year also warned of food shortages).

But as far as hunger goes, there is more bad news. At the beginning of the month, the Malawi Congress Party refused an invitation to a state banquet commemorating Malawi’s 51 years of independence on moral grounds, saying why would you want to celebrate when the majority of Malawians were starving.

“Even ambulances are not operating, how can we be dinning and wining at the state House, this is setting priorities upside down” said Dr Jessie Kabwila, MCP’s publicity secretary.

They questioned why instead of spending K300 million (£427,870.00) on the banquet, the money couldn’t be used on a necessary expenditure such as on paying civil servant salaries – which had been delayed.

On one level I understand why when commemorating an occasion in which dignitaries and a president of another country  have been invited, it would be rude to send them back without some kind of a banquet. On another level though, desperate situations require wise measures. Spending on food and strong drink when salaries have not been paid is irresponsible.

Maybe they could have asked donors to chip in? But again, why can’t they ask donors to chip in to pay civil servants? And much more importantly, where is the ‘independence’ if you have to run to donors for every piece of expenditure?

But I digress, the reason people complain about what is happening in Malawi is not that they like complaining, or that they are anti-DPP. There may be some people who are just disgruntled moaners, but I think they are in the minority.

One of the most common reason why people complain about the situation in Malawi is because there appears to be way too many thoughtless decisions (which adversely affect Malawians) at the heart of government, and not enough thoughtful decisions to help the people on the ground. And frankly this trend has been the same with all previous multi-party governments since 1994. In my view, the only administration which tried harder (or appeared to be trying harder) than the rest to manage Malawi properly was Bingu Mutharika’s first government. That’s not to say that it didn’t have its ills. It did , and we can argue about that till the Chickens come home to roost. But the point is Bingu tried.

Which reminds me of my post last year here, titled 7 Essential Ingredients of Effective Political Leadership which many African Leaders lack.