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.

Has the Tonse Alliance Cabinet Declared their Assets?

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When Joyce Banda became president of Malawi, following the death of Bingu Wa Mutharika in 2012, a lot of noise was made by some Malawians regarding Banda’s declaring her assets.

Similarly, when Peter Mutharika was elected President in 2014, Malawians demanded that he declare his assets to the Office of the Director of Public Officers’ Declarations (ODPOD).

So then, now that we have a new government led by MCP and UTM in place, have the Ministers and other officials in the Tonse Alliance Government all declared their assets? And if not, when will they do so?

It’s important that this question is asked, because as President, Lazarus Chakwera said this governement’s ethos includes servant leadership. So it is only right and proper that all members of his cabinet, all MPs and other officials declare their assets. If not for anything else, then at least to inspire confidence and trust from Malawians

Also, who is monitoring and verifying these declarations, to ensure that they are accurate and not over-estimated? Maybe this job shouldn’t be entrusted entirely to ODPOD?

I think, in the interests of promoting public confidence in the new government, and in order to abide by the stipulations of Malawi’s constitution, and in the interests of protecting the country’s resources – so that we do not go back to the failures of the past, it is of the utmost importance that all public officials disclose and declare their assets.

Malawians need to know what assets public officials own, not only in Malawi, but also abroad. What interests including property do they own in foreign countries, and what is the value of those interests. How long have they had them and suchlike?

It is up to Malawians to demand that this is done, and to ensure that the process is honest and transparent. Otherwise you risk the failures of the past where people connected to the presidency or people with links to public officials began to suddenly accumulate so much unexplained wealth, and there was few ways of knowing or verifying whether such was acquired legitimately or not.

Of Ethics, Rashid Gaffar & Government sanctioned Extortion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Tonse Alliance is made up of 9 political parties.