As British ambassador Michael Nevin leaves his four-year posting at Lilongwe, his recent remarks about Malawi’s future are disheartening. Nevin, who will be replaced by new High Commissioner Holly Tett, irked some Malawi government officials when he said the nation is significantly more corrupt now, and that the rule of law in Malawi might be compromised forever if accountability is perpetually deferred.
Given the corruption that Malawians have endured in recent years, it’s hard to envision how – as Nevin suggests – the nation could set new standards for malfeasance. Yet most Malawian citizens agree. When surveyed a year ago for Transparency International, 69 percent said they think their government has failed to fight corruption. That research was conducted by Afrobarometer.org, an important source of quality research data in support of good governance and democracy now facing its own funding woes.
The researchers found that it wasn’t just the scope and shadow of the “Cashgate” embezzlement case that citizens viewed negatively. Police, schools, hospitals, utility companies and agencies that Malawians routinely connect with for voter registration and other necessary documents were all seen as corrupt.
Yet nearly three years after the shooting of former National Budget Director Paul Mphwiyo, the event that helped to unravel a $32 million fraud scandal and reveal the structural kleptocracy of Malawi under former president Joyce Banda, much of the world is still waiting to see real reforms begin to emerge.
Last year, a PricewaterhouseCoopers analysis of Malawi government transactions found $1.4 billion that, between 2009 and 2014, could not be accounted for under the tenure of Bingu wa Mutharika.
As journalist Frank Jomo points out, that’s more than half of Malawi’s entire 2015-2016 fiscal budget. It too was stolen from a nation of more than 17 million citizens who are among the poorest on earth, with more than 50 percent of all Malawians living in conditions of extreme poverty, and it’s been going on for so long – from the highest levels of government to the lowliest street corner – that it’s a way of life.
Consider the corruption case of former president Bakili Muluzi, a legal battle that has continued on for nine years under the subsequent administrations of Bingu, Banda and now Peter Mutharika, each leader in turn facing allegations and accusations about their own roles in depriving Malawians of their rights.
Following his 2014 election, Mutharika promised a crackdown on government corruption that would restore justice to the public, and instill confidence in the donors and foreign investors on which Malawi depends.
Those funding sources are critical for creating economic growth and jobs in a nation with a youth unemployment rate of 70 percent, and preventing the cascade of consequences that inevitably follows a lack of opportunity. The theft of funds from the public coffers causes the direct impact on schools, hospitals, food insecurity programs or HIV education that Malawians do without because of a corrupt and incompetent government, but it’s the secondary losses of development aid and business investment that amplify the loss.
Yet Mutharika has failed to make real progress in dismantling Malawi’s corruption machine, and like Nevin, the regional partners and global stakeholders that former Malawi leaders have alienated will remain skeptical of a new anti-corruption rhetoric that’s not backed by action and results.
The Anti-Corruption Bureau has made some progress with accounting practice improvements, but Mutharika has failed to support legislative reforms that would strengthen the ACB and its autonomy, and maintains control over the appointment of ACB leadership. He also is accused of protecting Muluzi – whose trial centers on the misuse of $11 million in donor funds – because of alliances within his own Democratic Progressive Party.
On the other hand, more than 70 politicians, contractors and civil-service workers have been charged in connection with Cashgate, including 11 who have been sentenced. Earlier this year, the International Monetary Fund announced it would resume disbursements from its $150 million Malawi program fund after seeing some commitment toward controlling corruption.
That sorely needed aid makes up about 40 percent of Malawi’s entire budget, and its reinstatement is a bright spot of optimism, but there are no guarantees that it will ever reach the people and programs for which it is intended.
Just last week, The Nation reported that only 10 percent of 2015-2016 aid funding has been accounted for by NGOs in Malawi, who are required by law to file audit reports on their operations. Development partners who chose to bypass Malawi’s government agencies because of the Cashgate scandal, and opted to work directly with NGOs instead, now find through the NGO Board announcement that there is no reliable data there, either, to explain where $181 million in aid went.
Meanwhile, private sector analysts warn that Malawi isn’t likely to stabilize soon, with investors taking a pass on the business and development opportunities that Malawi so desperately needs to grow.
Ultimately, it is ordinary Malawians who continue to pay the price – and the bribes. An intriguing 2015 study presented at New York University looked at how two notoriously corrupt agencies in Malawi choose their targets. The research project intentionally sent knowing participants through Malawi’s ubiquitous police roadblocks, or to 52 different ESCOM power utility offices for service permits, to see who was pressed for a bribe in those scenarios.
The results of the “Who Bears the Cost of Corruption?” research showed what all Malawians likely already know: a combination of political connections, socioeconomic status, and shared ethnicity are what will protect people from petty corruption or make them vulnerable to it.
Those factors writ large have prevented Malawians from living under a functioning government for decades, but it’s the chronic drip of corruption in all of their encounters that makes them wonder if they ever will.