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Let there be justice all over

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A Greek sophist arguing with philosopher Socrates defined justice as the pleasure of a person in power. In other words, justice was seen as not an objective term but something that the person in charge perceived it.

Naturally, in situations like this, the ideal of equality before the law cannot be achieved. One magistrate might be more severe or lenient than another magistrate in pronouncing a verdict. Two persons having committed the same offence would then be punished differently.

The Chief Justice should give guidance to magistrates so that where they have discretion in sentencing, they do not differ much. Occasions have been there when one magistrate has given a custodial sentence but for the same offence another has given a suspended sentence.

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From time to time, the president pardons prisoners who are said to have committed minor offence if in prison they have shown good behaviour. Would it not be better for first offenders of minor crimes that they are given more suspended sentences than custodial ones?

My memory refuses to die in respect of three cases. A cabinet minister met from his ministry budget expenses of his wedding to the tune of about K170,000. A whistle was blown. He promptly refunded the amount. But this did not save him. The court sentenced him to five years imprisonment, if my memory has not betrayed my trust. Soon after, we heard the minister had fallen ill.

Another cabinet minister upon seeing that civil servants were too slow in dealing with a supplier of urgently required goods decided to intervene and get things moving faster. He managed to get things done but later it transpired that he had involved the ministry in higher expenses than if he had left the matter to be handled by civil servants. A commission of inquiry found that he had not benefited from the transaction so that there was no discrepancy in what he had done.

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The president just assigned him to other duties. With a change of government, the matter was revived apparently because he was very active on the opposition side. He was taken to court and sentenced to about six years. On appeal, the sentence was reduced but not until he had been in prison for about two years.

A third case was that of a mayor who had solicited funds from a company worth about half a million. Instead of handling the money to the city chief executive, he kept it in his office drawer. A whistle was brown. He was sentenced to several years on account of theft and abuse of office. He lodged an appeal. The Supreme Court reduced the sentence to that of abuse of office noting that the accused had produced the money in court at the time of trial to show that he had not stolen it.

In all these cases, for first offenders, jail sentences were vindictive, designed to humiliate the accused. If it is inhuman to execute murderers; it is also inhuman to inflict heavy punishments on an accused for making a stupid blunder.

Law commissioners, professors of law and the Chief Justice should visit the system of administering justice so that inconsistencies are minimised.

Injustice occurs in other branches of the state and faith organisations as well. Archbishop Thomas Msusa made sound observations at the opening of the World Union of Catholic Women Organisation conference in Lilongwe recently.

He deplored nepotism in the state and the Church by which he meant the Catholic Church. Nepotism exists in other churches as well.

The Archbishop was perfectly right in suggesting that the failure of Malawi to achieve optimum economic and social development was traceable to the practice of nepotism. Of course, there are other reasons. But hitherto the problem of nepotism has generally been glossed over.

If a less qualified and competent person is given a key position because he or she comes from the “correct” region or district, injustice is done to the better qualified person. Moreover, the favoured appointed will definitely deliver less goods than the person who has been rejected. This is how incompetence infiltrate the civil service.

When the late Frederick Chiluba as a president of Zambia visited Malawi for the first time, he publicly said he had heard of the high reputation of the Malawi civil service and had come to learn how the Ngwazi had achieved it. That a competent and dedicated civil service gets things done better can be illustrated from the two eras: Dr Hastings Kamuzu Banda/Malawi Congress Party and multiparty.

Before the multipart era, we were being told that Malawi was one of the poorest 10 countries of the world. Now we are being told it is the poorest of the poorest, and its flagship university is at the bottom of the league of African universities. In view of economic and social development, the multiparty era has definitely effected changes but it has lost the race on the international scene.

The tendency to reserve top positions in the civil service, the army and the police for officers from the region of the ruling party is a contributory factor to the things that are not going well in Malawi. If a chief secretary is a chief executive of the civil service, why did Cashgate remain undetected for so long and when detected, it was done serendipitously? Reforms must continue. There is a lot to be improved.

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