Is anyone surprised that hundreds, if not thousands, of listed public officers have not declared their assets in the financial year that ended on March 31?
I am not! Because we are a shameful country that shamelessly despises its own laws.
Malawi has some of the most reformist laws on the continent, but those who are supposed to champion their implementation simply do not care.
Talk about the Access to Information Act, for which we received praise continent-wide on the premise that we were among few countries in Africa that had enacted such a piece of legislation.
Today, its full operationalisation is being suppressed by the very same officers who are supposed to uphold it.
While some technical issues on the operationalisation of the law are not yet in place, it would be nice to see people not facing glitches when it comes to accessing information from public offices such as the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC).
But the office is among the biggest despisers of that beautiful piece of legislation.
Its head, Colleen Zamba, is very economical with information about the affairs of her department. Oftentimes, she shows that she does not care about whether that is wrong or right.
It is on very rare occasions that you get a comment from her and this has been noted by a number of journalists doing stories which require information from OPC.
Now, having such problems from the highest office in public service simply tells you there is no hope in lower offices.
You sometimes wonder whether President Lazarus Chakwera knows that OPC is a very oblique office that does not respect the Access to Information law which he vehemently vowed to ensure is operationalised.
Let me digress a bit.
This week has been full of grim news from and about Capital Hill.
Apart from Finance Minister Sosten Gwengwe, who sometimes pretends he is concerned about our insatiable appetite for borrowing, damning State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) for being thorns in the wrong places, we learnt that government had written off about K9 billion which the Malawi Enterprise Development Fund had disbursed to politically-connected people whom the system cannot trace.
News also came out to the effect that the SOEs have made an aggregate loss of over K14 billion.
In fact, that amount is smaller because profits of some SOEs had to offset the cumulative loss, otherwise there are SOEs which made ridiculous losses as if they do not have managements which should know what they are doing.
But somehow, Treasury, as their parent, is contributing to the chaos we are seeing in the parastatals.
While there are others that are more like social enterprises, which should not be so much profit oriented, there still is a need to have ways of sustaining their operations.
Yet what we often see is these SOEs rushing to Treasury with begging bowls every moment they feel financially constrained.
In some cases, Treasury has gladly bailed them out without giving then conditions on how they should never come back to ask for more bailouts.
Oh! The gist of this piece is listed public officers’ disregard of the assets law.
According to the Office of the Director of Public Officers Declarations, there are SOEs which have registered zero-compliance rates; meaning so single listed public officer from those companies has declared their assets.
Essentially, the assets law was supposed to be an important tool for checking illicit accumulation of wealth by public offices.
But because this is Malawi, those who are supposed to comply with its provisions do not care at all.
That is why you hear that some public companies have officers who have not declared even a chicken that they own.
In fact, the trend shows that compliance with this law is waning. The simple reason is that those who despised it in the past were never sanctioned.
Even after the assets office had recommended administrative action on the defaulters, Controlling Officers and OPC—as the top office for public officers—never bothered to take action.
You cannot expect anything from an office that reneges on its own declaration that austerity measures have to be observed in the wake of an economic crisis.
Now, the Public Appointments Committee, which is the monitoring agency for the assets law, is inviting Controlling Officers of institutions whose officers failed to comply with the law to explain their cases.
The meetings will simply end with apologies like others have done before.
The larger issue should be disciplining listed public officers who do not declare their assets because that is what the law says.
But like I have said before, we are Malawi and disregarding our own pieces of legislation and strategies is nothing strange.
Alick Ponje is a features writer at The Times Group. He graduated from the University of Malawi with a bachelor’s degree in education, majoring in literature in English. Follow him on Twitter @aponje