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Mixed views on President’s men

To vet or not vet presidential appointees

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Lobin Lowe

Looking back at President Lazarus Chakwera’s two-year Presidency, among the things that one will see are ‘bodies’ of cabinet ministers and presidential aides thrown out of the vehicle he is driving — almost all of them on allegations of corruption. What does all this mean?

On Tuesday, when President Lazarus Chakwera sacked Lobin Lowe as Minister of Agriculture and his deputy Madalitso Kambauwa, it was a story of a presidency littered with dismissals of cabinet ministers and presidential aides – with nearly all of them in relation to allegations of corruption.

And governance experts, while applauding the President for cracking the whip on the errant men and women close to him, suggest it also reflects lack of proper scrutiny mechanism in Malawi for the integrity of those picked as presidential advisors and cabinet ministers.

Here are some of the men the President has ostracised in the past two years:

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  • Saulos Chilima has had his delegated duties stripped for being mentioned in the Anti-Corruption Bureau report on corruption allegations in relation to dealing with businessman Zuneth Sattar.
  • Lobin Lowe and his deputy have been banished from cabinet for the mess characterising AIP this year and for allowing the ministry to be duped of K750 million in a fertiliser purchase deal gone wrong
  • Newton Kambala was kicked out of cabinet on allegations of corrupt dealings in relation to fuel supply contract. Kambala was shown the door together with presidential aide Chris Chaima Banda on the same allegations
  • Martin Thom was kicked out of State House for smuggling a loan authorisation bill into Parliament. Now he is suing the state for K1.6 billion.
  • Kezzie Msukwa was shown the exit door on allegations of corrupt dealings with Sattar.
  • George Kainja lost his Inspector General of Police job on allegations of corrupt dealing with Sattar.

What does this mean?

University of Malawi political scientist Boniface Dulani said these cases should make Malawi reflect on the processes of picking cabinet ministers and presidential aides.

He said if thorough scrutiny was done, some of the cases levelled against the appointees would have been avoided.

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“I do not think someone becomes corrupt just because they have been given a ministerial or advisory position. If you are to look at their background you would find skeletons in their cupboard as they say. Because when you have to fire a lot of people at once it speaks badly about you as the appointee,” he said.

Dulani, however, said that it is also a positive development that the President is acting and holding people close to him accountable.

“I think this is something that we should acknowledge, something that was not there before. In recent years we have had the public complaining of some people holding positions when they are implicated in scandals,” he said.

General Secretary for Political Scientists Association of Malawi Makhumbo Munthali said the development could mean the President does not do a thorough scrutiny before he makes an appointment.

But, he added, it also shows that he can stand up to what he thinks is going wrong.

“Maybe there are considerations around how that person contributed to the party’s success or even how they are currently contributing to the party at the expense of using a merit-based appointment. Does he really invest much in doing screening before the appointment.

“On the other hand, it may mean that it is the people themselves who are messing up. On that side, I would therefore applaud the President that he is decisive and proactive in situations that are involving even those that are close to him,” he said.

But Munthali noted that the President’s actions to suspend or fire have come about after the public outcry.

“The President could be firing these people not necessarily out of desire but political pressure from the public in terms of how it is managing the country,” he said.

To vet or not vet

Nandin Patel, associate professor at the Catholic University of Malawi said it would not be right to make speculations that some of the appointments are made on the basis of a favour, arguing that cabinet ministers are solely the President’s prerogative.

“The firing has happened yes but let us look at the new trend that we have witnessed, that a President is acting on those that are entangled in scandals. This in a way gives a good attitude demonstrated by the President,” she said.

For Dulani, it is time to rethink the process of vetting of such presidential nominees.

“If you look at the United States, for example, ministerial appointments are vetted thoroughly before they are tabled before Parliament for further scrutiny,” he said.

But that would depend on what the Constitution says, according to Munthali.

“Our Constitution gives the President the powers to make decisions so for me I would feel like the Kenyan situation where the system gets approvals from Parliament, at the end of the day it still runs counter to the very principles of separation of powers.

“They do not need to give excuses to say we did not deliver because the ones we wanted to be in cabinet were rejected by Parliament. The executive has to be accountable,” he said.

Presidential Press Secretary Anthony Kasunda said everyone that directly reports to the President is vetted rigorously before being appointed to any position.

“And once appointed, everyone who reports directly to the President is held accountable for their conduct in office. The fact that there are now consequences for wrong behaviour from State House officials is proof that President Lazarus Chakwera has established an accountability system within his administration,” he said.

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