What next after the anti-corruption talking shop?

 

From the word go, I had a feeling that the National Anti-Corruption Convention held at the Bingu International Conference Centre (Bicc) from April 27 to 28 would be a waste of time and, of course, resources.

It all started with the theme: Corruption in Malawi: A Reality or Perception? This denoted denial about the existence of the vice among organisers of the conference.

The tone and framing of the theme was defensive, to say the least. That was not on for a conference that sought to examine challenges in the fight against fraud and graft, which has cost the country heavily. Today, donors are still holding on to their estimated 40 percent contribution to the recurrent budget and are channelling their development funds through international non-governmental agencies as they have no confidence in the management of the public purse.

My fears that the conference would not be any different from previous “tea parties” or talking shops started coming to reality when Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs Samuel Tembenu, whose ministry organised the conference, in his address, said while the popular perception was that the corruption battle was lost long ago, existence of political will was evident. The minister was also defensive on the independence of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB), especially relating to the appointment of its director general by the President.

President Peter Mutharika worsened the situation when he failed to commit to any change of the law on the matter and dismissed perceptions of political interference in the work of the ACB.

Expectedly, the President turned to his favourite punch-bag, the media, accusing the Fourth Estate of making “baseless allegations” of corruption against Cabinet ministers. But, for the record, the media reports on events as they unfold. The so-called “seven corrupt ministers” was not a creation of the media. Rather, it was said in Parliament and the media reported the same to the larger public.

The President used the platform to attack his immediate predecessor Joyce Banda, saying the country is still suffering from consequences of Cashgate—the plunder of public resources at Capital Hill exposed during Banda’s administration in September 2013. To her credit, she commissioned a forensic audit that established that between April and September 2013 K24 billion was stolen from government coffers.

But the larger picture is that between 2009 and December 2014, the country could not account for K236 billion in public funds. The period includes seven months from June to December 2014 under the Peter Mutharika administration and three years of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) rule under the late Bingu wa Mutharika.

 The point I am driving home is that the blame-game won’t help matters. Denial will only worsen the corruption perceptions as found by Transparency International (TI), Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (Osisa)and Malawi Confederation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (MCCCI) surveys.

Speaker of Parliament Richard Msowoya, though, raised pertinent questions regarding the corruption fight: “What are we afraid of? How does an independent ACB threaten anyone?”

These are some of the questions that needed to be tackled with open minds and not preconceived defences to people’s views by the authorities.

Whereas the ACB cannot be the lone fighter and fighting corruption is not all about attaining conviction, but inculcating a culture of prevention, I still feel it is high time the ACB director general was freed from the armpit of the Executive and allowed to make decisions according to the laws. The ACB director should be appointed on merit. Fine, currently, the President appoints the head of the ACB, albeit with the approval or is it “rubber-stamping” of Parliament. But still, this arrangement compromises the independence of the director general.

I am informed that in 2008, the World Bank and the East and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group (ESAAMLG) under the auspices of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) undertook a review of the Anti-Money Laundering and Combating Financing of Terrorism [AML/CFT] regime in Malawi and concluded that the framework met international standards, but recommened that government should have a strategy for implementing the regime and made several proposals. Nothing was done apart from passing the Financial Services Act 2010 by default.

Some time back, a reader gave me this feedback: “Then, came Cashgate. Three audits, and one forensic audit down the line (Baker Tilly and PricewaterhouseCoopers) and all the government promised the International Monetary Fund [IMF]) in its Letter of Intent of March 15 2015 I was: (1) There will be amendments to the Penal Code, Money Laundering Act and the Corrupt Practices Act; and, (2) The Reserve Bank will re-evaluate its capacity to enforce compliance with the AML regime.”

When all is said and done, what Malawi needs are not necessarily new laws, but political will and commitment to implementing what is contained in the existing laws.

It is high time authorities abstained from fighting fraud and corruption through podium rhetoric and switched to ensuring that laws are put to use. n

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