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Malawi’s high profile corruption arrests bring hope of renewed commitment to fight the scourge

Kondwani Magombo

LILONGWE—When Malawi’s Vice President, Dr. Saulos Klaus Chilima officially launched his United Transformation Movement (UTM) in Lilongwe in July 2018 ahead of the May 2019 tripartite polls, he did not hide his disdain for corruption.

“Our prisons are filled with prisoners who are serving jail for committing petty offences like stealing chicken: we want to get them out and send real, big, thieves there!” said Chilima.

On the other hand, Malawi Congress Party (MCP) presidential hopeful then, Lazarus McCarthy Chakwera, went the other way preaching his five-point agenda (Chakwera Super Hi-5), which, among other things, stressed on stamping out corruption through tough anti-corruption laws and empowering of graft busting body, the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) with resources.

The May 2019 tripartite elections came and went with the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) erroneously declaring the incumbent Peter Mutharika, of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the winner.

Mutharika’s purported victory led into a long and historical legal battle with Chilima and Chakwera on one side against MEC and Mutharika on the other side.

On February 03, 2020, the Malawi High Court, sitting as Constitutional Court with a panel of five-judges nullified Mutharika’s victory and ordered fresh presidential poll in 150 days.

The eight-month election legal battle did not only expose MEC’s incompetence in presiding over what the world now call a “tipex election”; it also brought to light alleged DPP attempts to bribe the five judges to bend justice.

This led to the arrest of renowned business magnet, Thom Mpinganjira, who was suspected to have been the middle man in the alleged bribery attempt.

The nullification of the May 2019 election and the arrest of the top business magnet on bribery suspicions were, perhaps, pace setters in the country’s renewed commitment to fighting corruption.

The fresh poll brought Chakwera and Chilima into an alliance, Tonse (meaning Together), alongside other few parties and, after polling on June 23, 2020, Malawi ended up with Chakwera as President and Chilima as his Vice.

Right from his inauguration on July 06, 2020, Chakwera made the Tonse Alliance’s fight against corruption evident.

“Before we can begin to rebuild, we must clear the rubble of corruption, for it has left our taxes in ruins…The ruining of national treasures of both nature and state is a sin of my generation that I am bound by God to confess and bound by you to correct,” said Chakwera.

“I will challenge the leadership of the judiciary to do more to root out the culture of corruption and selective application of the law that has shipwrecked too many of our lowest courts,” he continued.

The country has now witnessed the arrests of “big and untouchable” figures on charges bordering on corruption.

Of interest was the arrest of President Mutharika’s top aide, Paulos Chisale, in July over alleged importation of 1.2m bags of cement worth 5bn Malawi Kwacha (US$6.6m) from Zambia and Zimbabwe, duty free, in the name of former President Mutharika, a claim that the former Malawi leader denied.

A chain of arrests on suspected charges bordering on corruption, fraud and money laundering have been, and continue to be effected and recent suspects include former cabinet ministers; CEOs and directors of government parastatals; commissioners of police; and parliamentarians.

Meanwhile former Home Affairs and Internal Security Minister, Uladi Basikolo Mussa, and former parliamentarian and DPP Regional Governor, Christopher Nzomera Ngwira, are serving jail terms after being convicted of abuse of power, among other crimes.

In another high profile arrest, former Minister of Information, Henry Mussa, is out on bail after he was arrested for allegedly diverting to personal use a donation of 10 desktop computers and 3 generator sets meant for the country’s selected district information offices.

The Tonse alliance leadership has repeatedly said “this is just the beginning” and that “Malawians are yet to see more, and more commitment” towards ending corruption.

Chakwera has gone further in upholding the rule of law and transparency by availing himself to the public for scrutiny through weekly media briefings and appearances before parliament to answer questions.

Further, under the Tonse Alliance, the Access to Information Bill that had been shelved for over 15 years was finally put into operation and it’s now undergoing implementation process.

As a country, Malawi has always ranked low on the Corrupt Perceptions Index (CPI) conducted by the Transparency International (TI), which groups countries’ performance from 0 point (highly corrupt) to 100 points (very clean).

The highest score Malawi attained on the CPI in the past 10 years was 37 in 2012 and 2013, a leap from a score of 30 in 2011.

In 2019, TI ranked Malawi on position 123 out of 198 countries that were assessed and the country’s score was 31, a drop from 32 points in 2018.

But with the levels of transparency, governance and fight against corruption, the ACB, Malawi’s graft busting body, is optimistic that the country is heading towards the right direction and that the ranking will improve on the CPI.

“Come January, 2021, when the Transparency International rankings are released you’ll notice that Malawi will do tremendously well: it will be a very big jump – for several reasons,” ACB Director General, Reyneck Matemba, told local journalists earlier in the month during the launch of the 5th Annual Integrity Committees’ Forum held in the lake-shore district of Mangochi. 

“As a country now we seem to be working together when it comes to fighting corruption; it’s not just the ACB alone but the civil society, the media, the citizenry, and most of all: government – the most crucial sector when it comes to the fight against corruption, are all on board,” he said.

The ACB Director General added that unlike before, government has given the Bureau “tools and the space to fight corruption” and that with the existing rule of law, media freedom and democracy, as a country “Malawi has done well worldwide”.

The country’s human rights watchdog, Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) concurs with ACB on the new administration’s commitment to fighting corruption.

However, HRDC cautions the new leadership on sustainability of the fight against the corruption.

“The challenge is how to translate the commitments into action: the onus is on institutions such as ACB, Director of Public prosecution (DPP) and the Malawi Police Service (MPS) to conclude investigations of the cases and to bring all cases to court,” HRDC Chairperson, Gift Trapence, told LensAfrica in an interview.

He added: “Malawians’ expectations are not about the arrest of high ranking officials but rather the conclusion all corruption cases and also recovery of property accrued from corruption proceeds. Even if we were to be ranked highest in fighting corruption, Malawians would only appreciate it if it is translated into action and is beneficial to the nation”

HRDC has embarked on whistle blowing initiative whereby the consortium is soliciting for information from the general public on suspected corrupt practices for ACB’s attention.

According to Trapence, HRDC has received and referred to ACB thousands of reports on suspected corruption practices across the country and the Coalition will be following up each and every case with the Bureau.

Malawi government spokesperson, Gospel Kazako, re-affirmed government’s unrelenting commitment to end corruption in the country.

“Our fight against corruption is motivated by solid grounds of our belief that it is the most destructive single virus of our nation,” Kazako, who is also Malawi’s Minister of Information told LensAfrica.

He added: “We fight corruption not for the purposes of being rated. No. We are fighting corruption because it is evil – an evil that has seen our people getting poor and their lives getting miserable.”

As one way of enhancing the fight against corruption, the ACB embarked on anti-corruption awareness month on 09 November and the campaign is expected to run up to December 09, the UN designated International Anti-Corruption Day.

During the campaign, ACB will work with the Malawi Police, road traffic and safety services, and other government ministries, departments and agencies across the country to spread strong messages against corruption.   

According to ACB Director General, the anti-corruption awareness month is a new concept that Malawi learned from Ghana, where, according to Matemba, it paid dividends.

“We will be preaching against the cancer called corruption,” Matemba told local journalists recently. “We want to mobilize people and we want to incite anger in them so that they should all rise against corruption.”

It however remains to be seen if the high profile arrests are not a witch-hunt of the previous government officials by the new administration of president Chikwera which will just end as a catch-and-release game.

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