18 December 2013

Malawi: President Banda Dogged By Cash-Gate and Demands of Re-Election

analysis

During Nelson Mandela's burial ceremony, the Malawian President, Joyce Banda, received a standing ovation from foreign dignitaries and the South African audience.

She eulogized Mandela, calling him "a great reformer." A prophet, it is said, is not respected in his home country.

Back in Malawi, Banda is a besieged and bruised leader who has been engulfed by a string of corruption allegations.

She came to power last year when President Bingu wa Mutharika, a man who had attempted to fire her from her position as vice president, suddenly died of heart failure. She became the first female president of Malawi and the second female president on the entire continent.

Banda won accolades and international recognition as she spearheaded a campaign against graft. She sold her government jet, slashed her salary by half, and regained the confidence and the support of Western donors.

Her predecessor had denounced foreign donors for meddling in the affairs of the country and trying to topple his regime; telling them to "go to hell." In contrast, Banda courted the donor countries and they rewarded her by releasing frozen aid.

The influential American magazine Forbes named Banda "the most powerful woman in the world." Time magazine, not to be outdone, listed her as one of the most influential 100 people on the planet.

Banda's memorable stand against the Sudanese president, Omar al-Bashir, a fugitive of the international court, earned her widespread commendation from the West; particularly when she refused to host the African Union's annual summit if al-Bashir attended.

Recently, the pendulum swung to the other extreme and the once-lauded Banda has become a politician reviled for her failings. She has become embroiled in a corruption scandal aptly called 'Cash-gate'.

Government coffers have been systematically looted by civil servants. A priest in Malawi's Catholic Church recently called Banda the "greatest thief in the world."

In testimony before the Malawian Parliament, Peter Chinoko of the Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) accused President Banda of being "part and parcel" of the Cash-gate scandal.

The genesis of the scandal, according to Chinoko, was an attempt by Banda and her supporters to raise funds for the upcoming elections that will take place in May.

The most damning report regarding corruption in Malawi was issued last month by a UK-based Malawian attorney and former presidential legal advisor, Z. Allan Ntata, tersely titled "License to Loot."

The 67-page report is a disparaging assessment of a presidential leadership in which endemic corruption is the norm, not the exception. Speaking in absolute terms, Ntata called the Cash-gate scandal "the biggest fraud case ever recorded in the country." According to Ntata, corruption is perpetrated by the executive branch and there is an elaborate and deliberate scheme to cover it up.

The following are examples of this corruption:

  • An accountant in Banda's office, Frank Mwanza, authorized a payment of $3 million to a ghost firm.
  • In a police raid, a junior government official, who makes about $100 per month, was found in possession of $25,000.
  • Patrick Sithole, an account assistant in the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change, was arrested in possession of an equivalent of $310,000 in various currencies.
  • Fourteen government officials have been arrested in relation to the Cash-gate scandal.
  • Three months ago, nine police officers were convicted of fraud involving $164,000.
  • The budget director of the finance ministry was shot three times in dubious circumstances.

Banda issued a curt denial of the allegations of corruption and has portrayed herself as the victim of insidious accusations.

In an interview with Al-Jazeera TV, she tried to obfuscate: "We have not failed [fighting corruption]." Banda shifted the blame to her predecessors by saying that the problems of graft had started 15 years earlier, while refusing to declare her own assets or appointing an independent commission to investigate corruption.

Currently, all the entities investigating graft - including the Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Financial Intelligence Unit, and the police - report to the president. In October, Banda dismissed her entire cabinet and then re-instated it save for four ministers.

Western donors have frozen their aid to Malawi, which constitutes 40% of the government's budget, until February 2014 when the International Monetary Fund will conclude its review. Banda, however, seems unperturbed.

In an interview with the UK's Telegraph newspaper, she dismissively pointed out that it was not the first time that Western donors had walked away from Malawi. "They [donors] come and go and come and go but we are here, we did not die," she scoffed.

President Banda is not the first African leader who has become the darling of the international community while at the same time being vilified at home. This bifurcation of trying to appeal to two different yet mutually exclusive audiences is taxing.

Donations from the West are badly needed and, in many cases, are the key pillars that sustain a developing country like Malawi.

However, other domestic factors need to be considered if an African leader like Banda is to survive politically. One drawback of being an international icon is that the status does not necessarily translate into actual votes at home. Banda has been saying the right things to Western donors about fighting corruption and instituting measures of austerity.

However, when all is said and done, she is a politician who is concerned about re-election. Staying in power in a semi-democratic country may involve patronage and the greasing of palms. In other words, it involves a set of rules and practices that may not be acceptable in the countries that provide aid. It is, perhaps, this dilemma of reconciling one's international standing and the reality of politics at home that is haunting President Banda.

Hassan M. Abukar is a freelance writer and political analyst.

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