Africa, Headlines

CORRUPTION-MALAWI: ‘Fat Cats’ Still Bask in Glory

Frank Phiri

BLANTYRE, Jan 12 2004 (IPS) - Corrupt ‘fat cats’ continue to walk around with their heads held high even though they have been caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

The consequences of their acts are set to remain a burden on this poor southern African country of more than 11 million people as it prepares to go to the polls in May.

The problem began three years ago when Malawi’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) arrested a number of suspects, after the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament audit report revealed K187 million (about 1.8 million dollars), meant for building schools and support infrastructure, went missing.

Within a week, Brown Mpinganjira, the then minister of foreign affairs, was sacked.

Later the government arrested and recalled a number of other suspects from Europe where they had been posted on diplomatic duties. For years, Malawians have accused their government of shielding corrupt officials.

Two years later, a court in Malawi’s commercial hub, Blantyre, cleared Mpinganjira of corruption allegations. In a dramatic twist of events, Mpinganjira formed an opposition party, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). He used the party machinery to reaffirm his claims that the charges against him had been concocted by government to ruin his political career.

Critics blame prosecutors for failure to bring before court tangible evidence to prove cases of corruption. In fact, majority of corrupt officials have either gone scot-free or have their cases gathering dust in courts.

“The perception of people is that the ACB has failed. If it’s failing to prosecute because of lack of evidence, it should come out in the open and say so otherwise it will remain a drain on taxpayers’ money,” said Rodgers Newa, chairperson of the Human Rights Consultative Committee.

The anti-corruption bureau has admitted losing over K7 billion (about 67 million dollars) in seven years through cases involving cabinet ministers and senior officials, which, it claims, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has refused to prosecute

The amount wasted on unconcluded corruption cases is K3 billion (about 29 million dollars). The anti-corruption bureau records show that the major cases which the DPP has refused to prosecute leading to loss of K7 billion, include the K187-million (about-1.8 million-dollar) Ministry of Education scam, the 32-million-dollar national identity scandal, the 10-million-dollar Land Rover scandal, the K78-million (743,000-dollar) tax evasion by a sugar baron and top government officials, and the K2.9-billion (27.1-million dollar) sale of maize from the strategic reserves.

The Land Rover contract was awarded to a suspected briefcase car dealer, which supplied 63 vehicles to government. According to ACB’s investigations, the firm is not registered in Malawi and that the vehicles it supplied were second hand bought in neighbouring Mozambique.

The anti-corruption bureau has made recommendations on 1,305 out of 2,697 reported cases since 1997. From these, 48 were referred to DPP with applications for consent for 142 suspects. The DPP gave consent to prosecute 105 suspects and declined to give consent for 37 suspects.

“As can be seen, the Bureau completed these investigations in as far as it was permitted to do so. Final completion, therefore, lies with the DPP and not ACB,” said Justice Michael Mtegha, director of anti-corruption bureau.

Irked by DPP’s delay to act, the bureau submitted a request to the Malawi Law Commission in November seeking removal by Parliament of the consent requirement.

But cabinet threw out the proposal.

DPP’s Farhad Assani says the anti-corruption unit and any other investigating agency should not rush into seeking more powers through amendments to laws just to cover inefficiencies.

“Why should ACB want to be treated differently? I treat the police, courts and other public offices in the same way. Investigating agencies should not be allowed to manipulate laws with a view to conceal some investigations and inefficiencies,” Assani told IPS.

Donors have threatened to freeze further disbursements of the balance-of-payment support to Malawi.

They say they cannot continue injecting money in a country that is corrupt, and whose suspects are often not prosecuted.

“Putting money in a country where corruption is not controlled is a waste,” said Steven Browning, the U.S. envoy to Malawi.

Browning urged the government to clean up its house. Failure or delays to do so would force Washington to disqualify the southern African country from President George Bush’s Millennium Challenge Account which promises 15 billion dollars for developing countries once approved by Congress, he said.

The World Bank and European donors, led by Britain, have already withheld aid to Malawi. They are waiting for the outcome of the May 18 general elections.

At stake is 80 million dollars, half of which was committed by the World Bank under its Structural Adjustment Credit and the remainder by the European donors. Negotiations have been halted as the donors await a review of Malawi’s economic performance by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

Anthony Mukumbwa, spokesperson for the opposition Malawi Forum for Unity and Development party, has lashed out at the ruling party for failing to deal with its top brass, which is at the centre of the backlog of corruption cases. He warns legislators to brace for voter apathy in the May polls because voters, he says, have lost confidence in them.

Hitting back, Mary Kaphwereza Banda, the ruling party’s deputy publicity secretary, says the government is bearing the brunt because people were not looking in other direction to trace corruption.

“Where is the evidence that everyone in (the ruling) UDF is corrupt? Corruption is not just in the UDF, even opposition parties, churches and the journalists who write about it in the press are corrupt,” Banda, who is also minister responsible for HIV/AIDS Management, told IPS.

Transparency International, the global watchdog, has placed Malawi among the most corrupt countries in the world in its December report.

Malawi shares the slot with India at number 83. Nigeria and Bangladesh are at the worst positions of 132 and 133, respectively.

Putting up a brave face, Finance Minister Friday Jumbe said ‘corruption did not start with the UDF government’.

“The question Western donors should be asking themselves is why corruption is rampant in Third World countries. The answer is poverty. Poor people are vulnerable to manipulation,” he argued.

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