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.

Lazarus Chakwera Elected 6th President of Malawi

Malawi’s Opposition Leader who is the leader of the Malawi Congress Party, Dr Lazarus Chakwera has been elected as President of the Republic of Malawi, on a ticket which included UTM leader and Vice President Dr Saulos Chilima as running mate. Taking 58.57% of the vote, Chakwera and Chilima’s Tonse Alliance took over 2.6 million votes out of the 4.4 million casted votes in what is a historic election in Africa. 

The vote was a re-run ordered by the country’s Constitutional Court, following a disputed May 2019 election that was annulled because of widespread systemic irregularities, and mishandling of the election by the country’s Electoral Commission – which had declared incumbent Peter Mutharika winner in the 2019 disputed poll. Mutharika, who has been in power since 2014, won 38% of the 2019 discredited vote, while Chakwera and Chilima won 35% and 20% respectively.

Chakwera will be Malawi’s 6th President, and the first from the opposition Malawi Congress Party in nearly 30 years.

Chakwera’s victory was given impetus mainly by the votes which his running mate Dr Saulos Chilima brought to the Tonse Alliance (which included nine other opposition parties and figures such as former Preident Dr Joyce Banda) which boosted Chakwera’s figures significantly to achieve and surpass the required 50% +1.

Malawi’s courts changed the interpretation of the definition of a “majoritiy” in it’s constitution earlier this year, such that a leader is only lawfully elected as president if they get at least 50% +1 of the vote, instead of the first-past-the-post that was used in previous elections.

Chakwera’s victory brings to an end many months of demostrations against Peter Mutharika’s DPP government, which has been accused of tribalism, corruption and significant mismanagement of the country’s economy.

Dr Chakwera and Dr Chilima will be sworn in today, Sunday 28th June 2020, in Lilongwe, Malawi’s Capital.

Saulos Chilima & the Devil

There comes a point in a leader’s life when they have a critical choice over an important matter. The decision they make defines them forever.

Saulos Chilima & wife
© AFP. Saulos Klaus Chilima, accompanied by his wife, Mary, waits to be screened at Lilongwe High Court, where judges later annulled the May 2019 election,Lilongwe, Feb. 3, 2020.(Photo by AMOS GUMULIRA / AFP)

There is a little known African proverb which says Cross the river in a crowd and the crocodile won’t eat you.

It’s a metaphor which has been interpreted to mean people can achieve great things as a group rather than as individuals even when faced with danger; its the classic proverb meant to encourage collective action against innumerable or otherwise monumental challenges, even when there is danger (symbolised by the crocodile) and an obstacle or uncertainty of large proportions (i.e. the river).

But the metaphor can also be invoked to mean if someone undertakes an action together with a majority, they are unlikely to face the wrath of the masses (symbolised by the crocodile) sometime down the line since when making the decision, the person didn’t think only about themselves but took the decision (i.e. crossing the river) together with the crowd.

However, the kind of ‘crowd’ (and more generally partners) one chooses to mingle or intertwine themselves with when faced with a challenge matters.

While some crowds can elevate you, and propel you to greater heights far beyond your original standing, other partnerships can pull you down or even destroy you altogether (‘feed you to the crocodiles’). Knowing one from the other can be the difference between survival and catastrophe.

Malawi has recently experienced a monumental and historic moment in its democracy. In a landmark judgement, Saulos Klaus Chilima & Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera v Arthur Peter Mutharika & Electoral Commission, a unanimous bench of the High Court of Malawi sitting as a Constitutional Court nullified the country’s May 2019 elections and ordered that fresh elections be held in 150 days. Malawi is the second African country to nullify a presidential election, after Kenya. The court further held that a proper interpretation of section 80(2) of the Constitution of Malawi requires that presidential candidates garner 50% + 1 votes to be duly elected, effectively striking down the first past the post system for presidential elections.

However, now that the Constitutional Court has clarified the 50% +1 issue, it means it will now be difficult for any political party to win an outright majority in an election. It means parties must enter into alliances to be able to form a government, as is the case in many other countries around the world.

Critically, it also means Saulos Chilima and his United Transformation Movement (UTM) party will most likely become the kingmakers. This gives him a lot of influence because it means whoever he decides to work with will have to offer concessions or policy promises which appease the UTM block, which only has 4 MPs in Malawi’s 193 member Parliament.

There has been speculation that Saulos Chilima is open to working wth the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of Peter Mutharika, the same party from which he resigned in 2018. In particular, several sources have told me that senior advisers around Chilima think it is feasible and not preposterous for UTM to get into an Alliance with DPP to contest the upcoming fresh elections, which the Constitutional Court ordered should be held within 150 days of its judgement.

Mind you, this is the same DPP which has been called by some Malawians as “our common enemy”. It is the Same DPP which has presided over numerous corruption cases, over accusations of nepotism and cronyism; a government that tried to intimidate those protesting in the streets and labelled them terrorists, shielding police officers when they committed sexual assault and raped women and girls in Msundwe. The DPP government has abandoned our hospitals in Malawi as people die because of inadequate medical care and lack of medicines while party cronies swim in unexplained wealth, and can afford medical attention abroad; this is the party that said nothing regarding an attempted bribery of the judges presiding over the Constitutional Court case – resulting in an unknown magistrate quashing the warrant of arrest of one of the suspects of the bribery (later the warrant was restored by a High Court Judge).

But most of all, the DPP government has presided over a corrupt, rotten and unprofessional electoral body, the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) which the Constitutional Court revealed conspired with DPP to defraud the people of Malawi, of a free and fair election.

Is that really the kind of party Chilima now wants to associate, let along re-align with?

When Saulos Chilima left DPP, he insinuated many things about his old party’s excesses. Among the things he said were the following words, which many thought pointed to the rot within DPP. In an interview with Reuters News Agency, Chilima said: “I have been vice president for the last four years. I’ve had no support within to fight corruption, so the best way is to run for the highest office and then take corruption head-on”

I have been vice president for the last four years. I’ve had no support within to fight corruption, so the best way is to run for the highest office and then take corruption head-on

So contrast those words with the murmurs that a UTM – DPP alliance is still on the cards, and it’s easy to see why some of his supporters are livid.

Whether he realises it or not, this is the moment when ‘the dark side’ attempts to coerce an upstanding leader who up until now has made more right moves than wrong ones; this is the moment dark forces attempt to seduce someone into lowering their political standards against their better judgement, with potentially catastrophic consequences; a wanton and reckless decision devoid of any wisdom or forethought, one that would destroy their reputation, including any good fortune, high esteem held or respect the public had of them.

Here, a bit of context is necessary in that most of the people around Chilima have never held political office, either as elected representatives, or by being appointed to an official role besides an elected representative. So you’d think some of the advice they give will at best be taken with a pinch of salt.

But Chilima’s predicament is not unique to him or indeed Malawi. Many other leaders throughout history and in literature have been faced with challenging situations of one type or another.

This is the moment narrated in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke, when Jesus no doubt exhausted and hungry from fasting forty days and forty nights in the wilderness, is taken by the devil to a very high mountain and showed all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour. The devil says to him in Mathew 4 verse 9: “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me.” to which Jesus replies: “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only”

When Geroge W. Bush was president, the unholy cabal of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and other hawks convinced the malleable Bush with feeble if not dodgy intelligence that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). A decision to go to war led to the deaths of over 300,000 Iraqi civilians, (500,000+ people according to other estimates[Washington Post]) and forever labelled ‘Dubya’ , as he was nicknamed, as the US president who took the US into a phoney war. Not only did the Iraq War completely destroy large parts of Iraq, but it spurred hatred against the US in the region, and directly led to the rise of extremist groups, including that known as ISIS.

This is the moment Nick Clegg, former leader of the UK’s Liberal Democrats Party made the ultimate political error by allowing the UK’s Conservative Party under David Cameron (with whom the Liberals were in a coalition government, following an election that produced a hung parliament) to overrule his most important policy commitments on University Tuition fees; a mistake so grave it angered his party’s core supporters who punished the Liberal Democrats at the next election (held in 2015); his party’s MPs were fumigated from parliament like rats flushed out of a rat hole. They lost a whopping 49 seats and Clegg resigned as leader!

This is the moment in July 2011 when faced with demonstrations in Blantyre, Lilongwe, Mzuzu and Karonga, Bingu Wa Mutharika ordered a crackdown instructing riot police to fire teargas and live bullets in confronting them, leading to the deaths of 18 people. Malawians never forgave Bingu for that one single act.

It is akin to the moment Aung San Suu Kyi, once celebrated internationally as a champion of democracy, ignored widespread allegations of mass murder, rape and forced deportation in Rakhine state in Burma, and did little to act and protect the lives of hundreds of thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims, even after a UN fact-finding mission investigated the allegations and found compelling evidence that it said the Burmese army must be investigated for genocide against Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine.

Malawians have been taken for fools for a long time, and their peaceful nature and hopeful trust in strong-men (“abiggie”), abused by politicians of all colours; the kind who make false promises (“I will turn Malawi into Germany“) that can’t possibly be fulfilled.

But if there is one certain thing the recent protests in Lilongwe and across the country have shown, it is that Malawians will no longer be taken for fools. Going forward, no one will take the people of Malawi for granted anymore: Not donors, not foreign election observers, not local political parties, not local party leaders, not chiefs, not foreign investors, not Chinese investors …. NO ONE!

So, whatever Saulos Klaus Chilima decides to do now, whether to listen to the blue imp perched on his left shoulder whispering falsities into his left ear, or whether to heed the red imp on his right shoulder – the tambala wakuda – he can be certain without a shadow of a doubt of one thing: that the Malawian people are watching his every move. And that what he does next will most-definitely be his legacy that will define him forever.

Construction Sector Transparency Initiative (CoST)

Construction Sector Transparency Initiative (CoST) is an initiative recently launched in Malawi

Launching the CoST Malawi website, on Monday evening, Vice President of Malawi Saulos Chilima said that:

“I hope that respective governance structures, project implementing agencies and construction industry stakeholders will take this as an opportunity to demonstrate to the world that Malawi can be a shining example of good governance and prove to ourselves that it is possible to develop our country”

Chilima said he was committed to ensure that reforms incorporate CoST principles so that disclosures cover the whole value chain of construction activities in Malawi.

This is an interesting development in the construction sector in Malawi because as some readers will know, the Cashgate corruption scandal badly portrayed the construction sector in Malawi.

So one can only hope that the sector will fully embrace these reforms, because clearly there are advantages be realised.

However, lets look at the issue in a bit more detail.

According to CoST’s international website:

It is estimated that upwards of $4 trillion annually is lost through mismanagement, inefficiency, and corruption in public infrastructure – on average 10 to 30 percent of a project’s value. These losses have a negative effect on the quality, safety, and value of the built environment. Specific investigations have found much larger losses in some cases, including projects that were paid for but never built and projects that collapsed with injury and loss of life. 

In terms of inefficiency and mismanagement one can understand why the stakeholders would want better efficiency and management. It would reduce waste and introduce a greater level of safety.

But when it comes to corruption, I’m not quite clear why a sector that has struggled with endemic corruption for decades would suddenly want to reform itself, simply because it is being asked to publish details of the procurement process?

Let me put it this way, publishing the pre-contractual process could make it harder for corrupt officials to hijack the procurement of public contracts, but does it shut the door to corruption in procurement altogether?

Consider this scenario:-

Suppose a procurement committee had a preferred provider of certain services prior to publishing of a tender, by virtue of an inside secret agreement between officials, their boss, and this particular provider. A deal that would be of financial benefit to the members of that committee. What is to stop some members of that committee from secretly assisting the preferred provider to submit the strongest bid, one that fulfills all the conditions of the tender, and is likely to be the most attractive? What is to stop officials doctoring the process behind closed doors to ensure the preferred provider’s success? Especially if the help given, is given in secret?  What will guard against such a scenario?

I think it is more logical for certain checks and balances to be established as part of this initiative, to make it more ‘foolproof’. The Vice President Saulos Chilima must ensure that some additional measures are implemented in all public procurement dealings. For example, this initiative could go much further by demanding that no prior conscious contact whatsoever must have taken place between the members of the awarding committee, or an employee of the awarding body or ministry, and prospective bidders, when they knew a contract has been published. Further, to ensure that committees awarding contracts are formed from competent yet unconnected individuals, who do not work together, and have no social relationships, awarding committees should be made up of people from different sectors, who do not know each other, who do not work together, who are not part of the same social circles, who come from across the country, and who critically have declared their political support( i.e. they support different political parties). All this is important to make it harder for a conflict of interests to arise.

So as an example, if the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining is considering publishing an invitation to tender for some goods or services it requires, an awarding committee could be made up of nine individuals:- two from the ministry itself, three from Civil Society Organisations, one ordinary member of the public, one from a religious organisation and two diplomats from different foreign consulars.

In my view, awarding bodies composed of such a makeup, although operating at a cost to the government, are highly unlikely to award contracts on political or regional lines, or in situations where a conflict of interest exists.

Further, while best practices can be imported from other CoST implementations across the world, the threshold in selecting successful bidders should be improved, so that only those with the highest rating, and strongest bids, as agreed by a large majority (at least 7 out of the 9) of the committee are awarded the contracts.

Finally, smaller players need to have their own categories, so that they are not disadvantaged merely by their size, when pitted against larger companies.

CoST Malawi is directed by a Multi-Stakeholder Group (MSG) that comprises representatives from:

  • Ministry of Irrigation and Water Development,
  • the National Audit Office,
  • Accountant General,
  • Director of Buildings,
  • Anti-Corruption Bureau,
  • Office of Director of Public Procurement,
  • Malawi Building, Civil and Allied Trades Association
  • Malawi Economic Justice Network,
  • Human Rights Consultative Committee,
  • Business Action Against Corruption,
  • African Institute of Corporate Citizens

All sounds good and well on the surface. Anyone can cobble together rhetoric and words that sound heroic and purposeful. But the implementation of this initiatives is what counts. The devil is always in the detail. In my view, the essential features  are not good enough. More needs to be done to prevent abuse of process like the scenario provided above.