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.

Thoughts on the sale of Malawi Savings Bank (MSB) , and more

The trouble with capitalists (as with politicians) is that they think only about themselves. Until after things begin to go wrong, after which they still think only about themselves. Need proof of that?  What happened in the 2008-2009 financial crash?

Dont get me wrong, I’m pro Capitalism. Totally. May not entirely be proud of it, but I am pro ‘responsible Capitalism’, for lack of a better term. My line of work is made possible definitely only because of Capitalism. And yes, I enjoy what I do.

But when your only motivation and greatest priority is making money; and everything else including other human beings come second in the list of priorities, then it is more likely than not that you have lost the plot; that you need salvation.

But without digressing too much, why is the sale of MSB the wrong decision?

Well, firstly assets fetch more when sold at the peak of their value. When they are sparkling and in pristine condition; for companies, it’s when business is going well and the profits are pouring in in bucket-loads. During such times, the sale of a business can command serious financial digits and can really bring value to their owners. But when the business is  loan-laden with toxic debts it issued (some alleged to be politically influenced backdoor deals), when a bank is infested with inefficiency, corruption or dodgy deals, when there are some financial mishaps, you can’t possibly expect to get value for money, or for the bank to be sold for the real value it is worth. Had the management persevered and got its act together before selling, had the bank liquidated a significant part of the debts on its books, it’s likely that it could have fetched more on the market.

Think of it like selling your old car (which is partly owned by your friend who doesn’t want to sell it) when the windscreen has a chip in it, when the paint work needs improving, when one tyre is flat, and look! – .there’s a decomposing rat on the backseat..yuck!

Lets just say your car would have fetched a better price if you first reached an agreement with your friend, and fixed it; if you got it cleaned, …kuyikwecha bobo, before attempting to sell it.

Secondly, you can’t sell what you do not officially own. You can’t sell what you have no authority to sell. Imagine if I showed up to a potential investor and claimed that I owned the land on which the new stadium in Lilongwe is being built. Not only would my claims be laughable (and could possibly land me a stint in jail), but any foolish investor who dared believe such folly, without independent verification, would find themselves in the undesirable position of having to explain a useless contract – a piece of paper that would be completely unenforceable.

So, being state-owned, MSB is essentially a chattel held by the state in trust on behalf of the people. It is Malawians who should hold the key to its fate, they are the ones who can legitimately decide on whether to sell it or not. Malawians and not only the government of Malawi.

If that’s not currently the case, then that’s how it should be, for any state-owned property because otherwise there is a danger that the executive could make decisions befitting more of a dictator than a democratically elected president; that the legislature could act without consulting the people they represent.

Which is a problematic state of play since by selling the bank, the assumption is that the government is acting in the interests of Malawians – and has their blessing in undertaking such actions ; yet from the anti-sale demonstrations and all the opposition to the sale, it would be perfectly clear to anybody who was paying attention that there are many thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands, or even millions of Malawians who didn’t exactly approve of the decision (the very reason why it had been initially suspended). So without a vote or proper public consultation, wouldn’t the sale of MSB be undemocratic? Or illegal?

In addition, state-owned property is one means by which the state generates an income to pay for the business of government. Without enough state-owned property (or some other dependable source of an income), most governments are unable to generate enough funds from tax-collection alone. They struggle to pay for services, and the business of government (Civil servant salaries, Security and public order, food, medicines, infrastructure, education, etc) with the result they end up having to borrow money from institutions whose primary motive is making money; international banks who can’t possibly be said to have the best interests of the loan recipient country at heart.

It’s the capitalists I mentioned above who get to provide the loans, on their terms and not the recipient’s terms. Therefore, it must come as no surprise if they disregard the hungry children the poor country has.

North_Darfur_IDP_malnourished_childDisregarding overflowing maternity wards in the country’s hospitals – which desperately need upgrading; with no concern, sympathy or consideration for parents who can’t pay for medical care for their children. Make no mistake, Capitalists are not charities. They are not mandated as governments of western democracies are – to care for the people, especially the most vulnerable people in society. They work without care for the villagers who have no clean water, no electricity and no medicines in hospitals. They don’t think about the young people who have degrees but can’t get jobs in their own countries because there are no jobs available (and the government or domestic private enterprise are not investing in jobs or youth development initiatives).

It’s no big secret, but most Capitalists think only about how much money they can make for themselves, for their organisations / institutions and for their friends.

I may not have all the concrete data to support this somewhat wild claim, but I’m willing to bet a few quid that they do.

The result is inevitable; whole countries end up tormented by debt, with ballooning deficits which can never realistically be got rid of, as Argentina and Greece have found out the hard way in recent years. They become the butt of jokes and stand at the receiving end of blame. Unable to raise credit, and therefore unable to finance their activities. It’s virtually a coup.

greek-bailout-fund2Countries like Greece. Countries like Malawi.

This is the reason why so many countries are in debt, because their governments do not own enough assets from which to extract a dependable and sustainable income, and they have to rely on harmful debts which damage their economies more than they help. Put simply, these countries do not have a job that pays enough for them and ‘their families’ to survive on, so they go to loan sharks who tie a noose around their necks.

In Friedmanian economics (or what he termed neoliberalism), the same governments – most of whom at the time were operating surpluses or relatively small budget deficits in comparison to the current levels –  were told by mostly pro-capitalist economists to relinquish ownership of high yield assets (in industries which were dominated by few individuals/ merchants in monopolies that traded side by side with the state-owned enterprises) they owned, in the process ‘laissez-faire’ economics morphed into ‘market competition’… a phenomenon similar in effect to the fall of the USSR’s property ownership framework while urging in the rise of the Oligarchs. Before you had fewer players gnawing at the national cake, and the government was a significant player- now you have more players at the banquet(even though they are still a minority in comparison to the whole population), but this time, the government is not even at the table.

No prizes for guessing who bought those assets, but the state – these fellows argued, shouldn’t be in the business of running anything. As a result, several decades later – culminating in Thatcherism in Britain – everything from utility companies (including gas and electric suppliers) were mostly owned by corporations; so were the mines, railway and telecommunication companies, virtually every large industry with the capacity to raise huge sums for the government fell out of majority stake public-ownership, in preference to some private outfit, whose primary motive was profit and little else.

Some of these countries do not have oil, or other high demand resources on which to depend in the long-run (and even many which do struggle to manage them properly).They have to rely on a small tax base (~ heavily taxed citizens) for revenues, crops such as tobacco which are fast becoming unpopular, on tax-evading companies to pay their fair share of tax to the state; how crazy do you have to be to depend on profit-shifting (cost-shifting) corporations to stop their dirty tricks and behave (even though there is little indication this will happen anytime soon)? They rely on meagre inflows of Foreign Direct Investment, on aid organisations whose ethics/ morality is often in question. And if all that isn’t sufficient to support their budgets, these countries have a ‘safety’ net which can only be described as a poisonous concoction of interest-driven donors and austerity-prescribing institutions – to provide loans.

In contrast, countries rich in natural resources such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait own significant parts of their largest industries, and can therefore afford to finance almost all the business of government from the sale of their natural resources (in this case oil).

When was the last time you heard that Kuwait or Qatar had asked for a loan from the IMF?

They don’t need to hold onto many state-owned assets outside of the petroleum realm, because the petroleum industry generates enough income to cover the business of government and give them budget surpluses for every other luxury – from financing huge construction projects, to paying for a controversial world cup that’s now increasingly doubtful – thanks to the FIFA scandal.

What about all the bailouts, someone may ask, and loans and aid provided to struggling countries over the last 50 years, where has all that gone? Well, mostly to the banks. And to companies from the countries of the aid providers. In the case of Greece which is suffering the same kind of debilitating debt onslaught as most African countries but on a much larger scale, the money went back to the same capitalists (see another link here from the Guardian) who created the very same mess in the first place.

Thus, considering all this, and more, I have to say for me it’s entirely valid to believe that if you don’t have a large multi-billion dollar industry in your country, if you have few natural resources to exploit, and if many of the common problems African countries have to battle with plague your economy, then it makes perfect sense as a government to hold on to as much industry as you can – and try to make it profitable. Maybe in the same way as Norway has done.

Such a strategy to me has a better chance of achieving a zero deficit budget, giving your country a surplus of disposable income others fail to achieve.

And that is why I think Peter Mutharika and the government of Malawi has got it wrong on Malawi Savings Bank (MSB)

P/s: Go tell the Malawian commentator who appeared to be saying that Malawians were wrong to voice their concerns over the sale of MSB that he has got it completely wrong this time. If anything, Malawians should be mad  for being taken for fools! far from being silent more Malawians should stand up to be counted. Foolish ideas deserve nothing but condemnation!