Where the elite can make a party out of the public resources with impunity

By Mathias Burton Kafunda

Despite some positive developments between 2005 and 2009, poverty and inequality remain high in Malawi. The poor quality of much of the basic infrastructure and the government’s inefficiency, coupled with corruption, in delivering public goods have been serious impediments to vibrant economic development.  Corruption has taken hold of all levels from top leadership to citizens who bear the brunt of it all through poor quality of public services. Since the dawn of democracy, corruption has taken the form of direct money payments or promises thereof, the offer of jobs, appointments and positions (including ministerial, judicial, regional and other senior government positions); positions in public companies and parastatals, and even titles of nobility.

By corrupt means, power-holders have managed to secure their hold on power by buying and manipulating the public institutions of accountability and control. Parliamentary majorities and favorable legislative decisions have often been bought; even loyal decisions from electoral commissions and high courts have often been bought in our era of democracy. The consequences have been grave, perhaps even worse than the consequences of extractive political corruption. It has led to bad governance in the form of unaccountable and favouritist political decisions; manipulated, weak and distorted institutions; lack of transparency and accountability; immunity and impunity; and elections that are not free and fair.

The country’s problem about corruption resides in the fact that, although our political system is said to be a hybrid that combines aspects of the presidential and parliamentary systems, the presidential model dominates the political practice. The president has enormous power and influences the life of almost all other institutions in the country. The president appoints the head of nearly every agency and the constitution grants the president powers to appoint ministers without subjecting the appointments to any form of checks and balances. The president also appoints most constitutional office holders, the attorney general, the director of public prosecutions, the solicitor-general, the auditor-general, the secretary to the cabinet, the chairman and commissioners of the electoral commission and the director of the anti-corruption commission, among others. In addition to these extensive presidential powers, political power remains concentrated at the national level. As a result, there is little local accountability, which has led to the poor performance of many key services; in other words, this arrangement has helped the elite live with largess and extravagantly out of the public resources with impunity. 

Since the democratic era the elite have filtrated every meaningful programme in the country to have a party out of the public resources.  Take for instance the Farm Input Subsidy Programme (FISP), an initiative designed to boost food self-reliance capacity of the poorest of society. Before the vice of corruption popped-up its ugly head, FISP was being heralded as a success because of the abundant yields, and it served as a role model for countries that were contemplating a similar strategy. The years after that to date, FISP has now turned into a conduit for corrupt practices at every turn of the programme implementation. Procurement and transportation contracts are awarded in an opaque manner, providing evidence of rent-seeking activities. The World Bank (2011) estimated that programme costs were being inflated by as much as 50 per cent due to policies of favouring certain contractors rather than applying competitive pricing. Using corruption as their modus operandi, organised criminal groups have infiltrated the programme to obtain both subsidised fertiliser and coupons. The networks involve a diverse group of people, ranging from government officials, politicians, coupon printers, businessmen, and truck drivers to foreign nationals who are part of the organised groups.

However, the extravagance of the elite with public resources was inevitable.  The problem is not that our leaderships have been antidemocratic but that their conception of democracy has been shallow and often illiberal. Like their predecessor of the one-party system, the leaderships of the democratic era have also only needed two things to stay relevant: money and loyalty. Cash has been used to buy off foes—and to buy the means of crushing them in case they turn out not to be for sale.

They have also needed the loyalty of the agents who wreak state violence-the fealty of the men and women with guns who have imbued the leaderships of the democratic era with extraordinary despotic power, enabling them to act upon the population rather than in dialogue with it. Essentially, throughout Malawi’s democratic era and at every available occasion during this period, authoritarian politics of the one-party system have reached out from their grave to hobble efforts to move towards democracy.

As a result, Malawi’s promise of inclusive political and economic growth, has been followed not merely by some backsliding but by a major reverse wave during which the political and economic terrains and practices have transitioned away from democracy to oligarchy- a narrow elite that has at every given opportunity thrown a party out of the public resources at the expense of the poor. 

Furthermore, extravagance at the top seems to be accommodated by our very culture that we so dearly cherish and hold on to. In Malawi, harmony and cooperation are preferred over disagreement and competition.  The population has lived in a society where they have never witnessed really active and critical citizenship. The cultural practices value obedience to authority more than independent thought and action. The maintenance of order and respect for hierarchy are central values. 

Government should come up with programmes that can alleviate poverty

The society has undeniable tendencies of strongman rule-the strongman heritage. Almost, everything moves from the top to down. Common practices are that consensus is never reached freely. Consensus is begotten by authorities imposing their will, and then they stomp on those who disagree. People do not think of themselves as citizens with rights to exercise and responsibilities to perform, but they tend to look up to the top for direction and for favours in order to survive.

It is a heritage of authoritarianism – between leader and follower- outlasting the democratic values of independent thought and action.  These cultural attitudes, values, beliefs, and related behaviour patterns are incompatible to the fight against corruption. They deny legitimacy to democratic institutions, and thus greatly complicate the emergence and effective functioning of those institutions. As such, the narrow elite have made a bed of roses out of this docility and allowed themselves to plunder public resources knowing that they will not get any meaningful chastising from citizen- and surprisingly the level of education seems not to matter; both educated and those who have never stepped in class act the same way.

In addition, the stern impediment to fighting corruption has been the absence or weakness of real commitment to democratic values of transparency and accountability among political leaders in the country. When they are out of power, political leaders have had good reason to advocate for prudent public finance management. The test of their commitment has always come once they are in office. Their styles of stewardship of public resources has always taken the form of executive coups in which democratically chosen chief executives have effectively ended accountability by concentrating power in their own hands.

For the poorest and most vulnerable, the difference that good, or particularly bad, governance makes to their lives is profound: the inability of government institutions to prevent corruption that inhibits provision of basic services is having life-or-death consequences; lack of opportunity for the poor is preventing generations of poor families from lifting themselves out of poverty; and the inability to grow economically is keeping the large population of this country trapped in a cycle of dependency. Fighting corruption, therefore, is central to anything in this country.

We must take extraordinary action, becoming citizen leaders in order to reclaim out promise of inclusive economic growth. We must work together to make a difference in the civic life of our communities and develop the combination of knowledge, skills, values and motivation to make that promise of a zero-tolerance for corruption come true.

We must, morally and civically be responsible individuals, who recognize ourselves as a member of a larger social fabric and therefore consider the vice of corruption to be at least partly our own; we must be willing to see the moral and civic dimensions of issues, to make and justify informed moral and civic judgments, and to act when appropriate. We must be willing to suffer and sacrifice to reclaim our promise of a better life. However, we must be sure that our struggle is conducted on the highest level of dignity and discipline; as Gandhi and King Junior put it ‘our method must be nonviolent to the core’.

*Kafunda is a contributor to

The Lamp magazine

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