On July 29 2017, the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) held a dinner event dubbed ‘Blue Night’, in essence a fundraising gala evening intended to solicit donations from the public for the running of the DPP. Since we do not yet have a framework for political party funding, there is nothing wrong with such solicitation. However, a number of contributors to the DPP cause posed genuine and well-founded concerns. These contributors included statutory bodies such as Blantyre, Lilongwe and Mzuzu City Councils and Lilongwe Water Board amongst others. There are reports that the list of parastatal contributors is even longer.
A number of civil society organisations including Centre for the Development of People, Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation, Church and Society, Human Rights Consultative Committee and Youth and Society (CSOs) took a stand against these donations and demanded that the DPP refunds the money received from the parastatals or face court action. This call was echoed by the Malawi Law Society, which condemned the illegal donations.
Seeking or demanding contributions from parastatal organisations is not new in our political dispensation. This type of abuse has taken place since the Kamuzu days and has been perfected in the multiparty era.
When given the opportunity, political parties of all colours, from yellow, to blue to orange, have all forced or otherwise induced officers in parastatals to breach their fiduciary duties and hand over cash or in-kind services to ruling parties.
For example, parastatals with the remotest concern in the transport business have purchased trucks and buses with no apparent connections to their central role only for these to be seen furtively carrying party cadres to and from campaign rallies.
Party functionaries strategically placed in the various boards have openly demanded excessive and unjustified allowances and other benefits, which have then been back-channelled to political party activities. So entrenched has been the practice that it is now unsurprising that it is carried out in the open, with officers from parastatals blatantly jostling with each other to be announced as the purveyors of illegal bounty.
However, it should not take the threat of a court case to realise that demanding donations from parastatals is wrong. Neither should it take CSOs to point out that handing out these donations is poor corporate governance.
Such actions are illegal both on the part of the DPP and the responsible officers at the concerned parastatals. As the ruling party, the DPP should be worried about not only the legality of these transactions but also the morality of the same. Political memory may be short but it would serve our politicians and officers serving our parastatals to remember the case of the formerly honourable Sam Mpasu and his Fieldyork problem.
When the yellow political song had come to an end, it was the formerly honourable Mpasu that was left squirming to the tune of accountability.
A refund of the so-called donations is the first step and this should be immediate. It is pointless discussing whether the DPP is right to keep the donations—the officers from the parastatals had no authority to gift these funds and in so doing have breached their fiduciary duties and other laws.
The second step will have serious repercussions for the individuals involved in soliciting these donations and the officers that authorised the gifts.
This step will require that prosecutorial agencies such as the Directorate of Public Prosecutions and the Anti-Corruption Bureau investigate if any financial crimes have been committed either under the Corrupt Practices Act or the Penal Code.
If these agencies do not move, the CSOs that have taken the DPP to task will be within their rights to seek judicial review for the lack of action from these prosecutorial agencies or indeed to launch private prosecutions over these donations.
Our political class still seems in denial that Malawians are tired of their excesses. How is it possible that at a time when Lilongwe Water Board cannot clear sewage from our water supply, they have the funds to donate to party political causes?
How is it okay that at a time when our children do not have adequate sanitation services at school, our city council officers are busy splashing money at a Blue Night?
The responses from the DPP when these matters were raised were full of entitled arrogance. There was little recognition of the grave repercussions for these illegal actions especially on the part of the responsible officers.
My Vice President, who has spearheaded reform in the public service, has spoken now and again about responsibility in public service but where is that responsibility when parastatal funds are misapplied at the behest of the ruling party?
And where is the Malawi Congress Party in all this? The silence from our main opposition party is worrisome as it indicates a consensus amongst our politicians that parastatal resources are fair game.
I have argued on this column that we need to resolve the issue of political party funding with a robust and transparent legal framework.
This episode highlights the urgency of these legal reforms. The message from the CSOs is clear: Malawians will not stand by when politicians and our public institutions conspire to squander the little we have. Stop raiding our parastatals. It is wrong. It is illegal.