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Massaging thieves’ egos

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All manner of thieves appear to be having a good time in Malawi. Nothing is really threatening their freedom and they can go about their nefarious businesses, knowing those with the power to act will turn their attention away.

Of course, there are others who are doing all they can in their powers to clamp down on evil people who keep skinning us alive.

They are not sleeping until they take down sticky-fingered bigwigs who salivate at every opportunity of lining their dirty pockets with illicitly acquired possessions.

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Such public and private individuals who are putting their lives on the line for the sake of this country need all the available support in the world. Sometimes, a simple encomium is enough to push them further.

While the prevalent narrative when it comes to people and firms stealing from Malawians often revolves around contractors conniving with public officers in criminal deals, there are seemingly honest businesspersons who are also doing a great deal of injustice to the socioeconomic progress of this country.

It is a global reality that commodity prices are mounting unprecedentedly.

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Across the world, fuel prices are reaching record highs because of several factors including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the removal of Covid restrictions—which has increased demand.

Currently, we are all waiting with bated breaths for what a new board at the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera) will do regarding fuel prices after Mera recently indicated movements in elements that push prices up or down would probably result in some bad news.

Then there is the issue of cooking oil prices that have been rising substantially since the Tonse Alliance took over managing affairs of this country.

Several reasons have been fronted by manufacturers for the rise including government’s decision to re-impose Value Added Tax (VAT) on the commodity.

Now, there was something suspicious in the argument by the manufacturers. There was an element of sabotage or pure theft in the pricing system—that kind of united immoral enterprise capitalising on weak systems and indifferent regulators.

While the manufacturers gave other reasons for the record hikes of fuel prices, such as the kwacha’s loss of value and the rise in imported crude oil prices, they kept on using VAT as the scapegoat.

Government finally took out the levy and went ahead to announce it was expecting a drop in cooking oil prices. As expected, there was some subtle resistance from the manufacturers who went back to the argument that several factors that have been resulting in the price hikes are still there, sometimes even getting worse.

Finally, a meeting between the Ministry of Trade and Industry has agreed that cooking oil prices will be reduced effective April 1. On the actual percentages, no information has been provided so far.

However, one crucial area that we should all pay attention to is the movements of prices between now and the day the prices will be ‘reduced’.

The businesspersons dealing in cooking oil are selling government a very dull dummy. From the time Minister of Finance Sosten Gwengwe announced that VAT had been scraped off, the prices have not remained the same.

Now, it is clear that the 16.5 percent will eventually become negligible by the time the manufacturers announce the reduction.

Yet, chances are high that the Ministry of Trade will not have any significant say as long as the reduction has been effected. For arguments’ sake, if a unit price is K1,000 at present and rises to K1,500 by March 31, a 16.5 percent reduction will be meaningless.

We should expect this systematic thieving—and it will pass, of course with the same trite argument that many more factors are triggering the price hikes.

Since prices elsewhere are relatively lower than ours, a government that is responsible enough and feels duty bound to protect consumers should have thought about pursuing a moderately beneficial path.

The Ministry of Trade is now saying that in the event that there is persistent escalation of prices on the market, government will consider allowing more importation of cooking oil to stabilise the prices.

It adds that government will continue regulating exports of raw soya beans to ensure adequate availability of the commodity to local processors “for sustainable local value addition, job creation and reduction of imports of crude cooking oil”.

Now, these acts were supposed to be undertaken the moment it became clear that some businesspersons were irregularly raising cooking oil prices.

Why has it been so difficult all along for government to allow more importation of cooking oil to stabilise the prices?

While government also has the responsibility of protecting and supporting local manufacturers, it is sometimes important to also look at the greater good.

In fact, one of the arguments for restricting importation of cooking oil is saving forex; yet the manufacturers, if reports from the government itself are anything to go by, use the same business space to externalise forex.

Government must stop being a passive and overly sympathetic father that easily massages the caprices of thieving businesspersons. There are important lessons in the cooking oil fiasco—but only to public officers willing to learn.

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