Africa, Economy & Trade, Headlines

CORRUPTION-MALAWI: Mutharika Bites the Hand That Fed Him

Frank Phiri

BLANTYRE, Sep 29 2004 (IPS) - It was not something expected of a president who was roundly denounced as being a front man for his predecessor, when he took office.

Equally, some may have taken a dim view of Malawian head of state Bingu wa Mutharika’s credentials as a corruption buster, given that he left a job at the Lusaka-based Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) under a cloud.

Appointed as COMESA Secretary-General in 1992, Mutharika was dismissed from the post in 1997 following allegations that he had defrauded the trade grouping of several thousand dollars.

Yet, recent weeks have seen the Malawian leader take what may prove to be decisive steps in the fight to rid this Southern African country of graft. These include the appointment of new staffers to head two key institutions in the fight against corruption – and the announcement of a new attorney general.

Thirty-two year old Ishmael Wadi, a lawyer previously in private practice, has been appointed as director of public prosecutions (DPP), while former high court judge Gustav Kaliwo is now heading the Anti-Corruption Bureau. Ralph Kasambara, a civil rights lawyer, has been named as Malawi’s attorney general.

During his first days in office, Wadi revealed that government had lost over 90 million dollars in cases of alleged corruption involving cabinet ministers and other senior officials.

“If such funds had been properly used, government could have easily constructed 500,000 high-density houses for the poor,” he said, amid protests from former DPP Farhad Assani that the president had terminated his contract prematurely.

Assani and other members of the old guard have been accused of protecting senior civil servants from prosecution for graft. In particular, a requirement that the DPP give his or her consent before the Anti-Corruption Bureau can prosecute corruption suspects appears to have been abused: Assani stands accused of refusing to allow various cases to go ahead.

A report issued in August by the Johannesburg-based South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) notes that the DPP’s failure to give consent for prosecutions has severely undermined the Anti-Corruption Bureau’s effectiveness since the body was established in 1995.

The “DPP has refused consent in 37 extremely politically sensitive and high value cases, including several senior members of the executive, or those connected with them,” observes the report, which evaluated Malawi’s ability to participate in the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. This initiative aims to increase foreign investment in Africa through improving governance on the continent.

Wadi is now reviewing case files that were gathering dust in government offices. As a result, high-ranking officials in parastatals and the ruling United Democratic Front (UDF) have found themselves in the Anti-Corruption Bureau’s cross-hairs.

Humphrey Mvula, a close associate of former president Bakili Muluzi, has been charged with four counts of corruption at the state-controlled Shire Bus Lines where he was previously chief executive. Mvula, who was fired from his post on Aug. 3, is accused of awarding contracts for the supply of goods to the company to firms that he has a stake in – or which are controlled by family members.

Kandionamaso Padambo, finance director at the government-run Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (ESCOM) faces two charges of misconduct, while another suspect – Salim Bagus – has been implicated in tax evasion at ESCOM. Bagus, who served as a cabinet minister under Muluzi, is now the UDF’s organising secretary.

In addition, a question mark is still hanging over the conduct of former Finance Minister Friday Jumbe. During Muluzi’s tenure, Jumbe was implicated in the illegal sale in 2001 of maize from the state-run Agricultural Development and Marketing Corporation (ADMARC) – which manages Malawi’s grain reserves.

Jumbe, who was general manager of ADMARC at the time, is accused of using the money from grain sales to fund construction of a hotel in the commercial capital, Blantyre – an allegation he denies.

The sales, which coincided with a drought in Southern Africa, may have contributed to food shortages that continue to affect “thousands” of people in Malawi, according to the United Nations World Food Programme. Lilongwe previously accused the International Monetary Fund (IMF) of forcing government to sell off strategic grain reserves in 2000 to reduce debt. However, the Washington-based organisation has denied this charge.

Peter Mulamba, former deputy general manager in charge of finance at ADMARC, is being sought by police to assist with their investigations into the dubious grain sales. However, he has reportedly fled Malawi, possibly for Britain.

In addition to Jumbe and Bagus, other former cabinet ministers who are coming under the scrutiny of the Anti-Corruption Bureau include Clement Stambuli, Phillip Bwanali, Patrick Mbewe and Peter Fatchi.

However, anti-corruption activists and opposition members are calling for the graft probe to extend still further – into the activities of Muluzi. Many wonder, for example, how the former president managed to finance the Keza office complex in Blantyre.

“The main issue is how (Muluzi) as president was taking part in business activities like the establishment of Keza,” says Rodgers Newa, chairman of the Human Rights Consultative Committee.

Anthony Mukumbwa, head of the Corporate Governance Centre, adds that Muluzi’s apparent increase in wealth requires an explanation: “In 1994 Muluzi was almost bankrupt…What is government waiting for? This is the opportune time to probe him.” The Blantyre-based centre is a private auditing firm.

While evidence of renewed vigour on the part of the DPP and Anti-Corruption Bureau has sparked a certain optimism in Malawi, legal experts have urged government prosecutors to exercise caution in proceeding with the cases.

“They should tread carefully. As lawyers we don’t want to see suspects walk away because of technicalities such as failure to establish certain aspects of a case,” Linda Ziyendam’manja, spokesperson for the Malawi Law Society, a grouping of local legal experts, told IPS.

Mukumbwa, however, fears that delays in prosecution could prove equally detrimental, as evidence could go missing – or be tampered with. “Already, a key suspect (Mulamba) is missing,” he points out.

For the moment, anti-corruption officials are playing their cards close to their chest as far as Muluzi is concerned.

“There’s no single file completed against Muluzi. We must first establish which laws restricted him from having business interests, because he may have assets which are legitimate,” Wadi told IPS.

In 2002, international donors cut off aid to Malawi, citing the government’s economic mismanagement and lack-lustre performance in the fight against corruption. Previously, donors provided almost 40 percent of the country’s budget.

In the absence of international aid, government has turn to domestic borrowing, racking up debt of about 500 million dollars. This amounts to about three-quarters of the country’s entire budget for the current financial year.

Given this state of affairs, various commentators have implored Mutharika “to unleash the Levy Mwanawasa in him” – a reference to the Zambian president’s role in investigations of his predecessor, Frederick Chiluba, who has been accused of extensive corruption.

But as the lengthy probe against Chiluba has yet to deliver the goods, perhaps a different exhortation is needed.

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