Last week, there was a national anti-corruption conference that brought together a varied group of stakeholders to debate on whether corruption in Malawi is a reality or a perception.
Unfortunately, the resounding answer was that corruption in Malawi is a reality and the fact that it is getting worse is both a reality and a perception. Corruption in Malawi depends on both our organisation of electoral and legislative processes and on the extent to which wealthy interests seek benefits from the political system. We believe that democracy is not necessarily a palliative to corruption and that reducing corruption may require political changes that go far beyond the administrative reforms of the good governance variety.
There was renewed hope in 1994 when the country ushered in a system of multiparty democracy with promises of reform, zero tolerance for corruption and a more responsive government. Over 23 years down the line, it seems that the levels of corruption have continued to increase leading to a state of despair. This is despite the fact that since 1995, the Malawi government has enacted over eight legislations (the Constitution, Corrupt Practices Act, The Public Officers Declaration of Assets Act, Liabilities and Business Interests Act, the Pubic Audit Act, the Public Finance Management Act, the Public Procurement Act, the Financial Crimes Act) related to curbing corruption and created seven institutions (the Anti-Corruption Bureau, the Directorate of Public Prosecutions, Directorate of Public Declarations, Auditor General, Finance Intelligence Authority, Office of the Director of Public Procurement and the Malawi Police Service) to deal with the various forms of corruption. Surely, something is not right; otherwise, the levels of corruption could have been going down.
Malawi has the right institutions to fight corruption. However, having institutions and having those institutions deliver is not one or the same thing. While there is a general understanding that these institutions are not performing to their fullest potential, it is a known fact that these institutions matter for dealing with corruption. The sad fact in Malawi is that these institutions are not working to their potential not by accident but by design and complicity of our politicians on both the opposition and governing sides. These institutions are what they are because the political actors in Malawi have an interest in keeping them that way. Bad or ineffective institutions are the product of political systems that create private gains for even if by doing so they impoverish the broader society.
We deserve the politicians we have. We elected them and we have the power to elect a group of politicians that are serious to fight corruption. We cannot continue to sacrifice the development of this country for the ineptitude of corrupt politicians and technocrats who act in cahoots to defraud Malawians of their hard-earned taxes. The excuse by opposition politicians that they are powerless to change the status quo is nonsensical if one considers that fact that they are in majority in Parliament and can mobilise the power of their numbers to make a positive change just like they do when it is an issue concerning their remuneration.
The excuse of lack of funding for these institutions to fight corruption is another scapegoat by these politicians since the laws of this country allow them to make amendments to the budget estimates presented by the Executive and if they were serious, they would use this power to increase allocations to these institutions. This is evidence of a political system that tolerates corrupt practices by serving the political elite rather than the ordinary citizens.
Why do we then as voters support corrupt politicians when we know that corruption tears apart the basic tenets of democracy and good governance? Unless we are corrupt ourselves as ordinary citizens. Corruption deprives Malawians of the benefits that should flow from investment in public services. The effect of corruption is reduced services. And then these corrupt politicians use the resources they have stolen from us to hoodwink us through handouts and cheap development promises while maintaining a culture of impunity and exacerbating poverty.
Institutional arrangements and procedures which define and support integrity transparency and accountability need to be strengthened while at the same time improving the coordination between the institutions created to fight corruption. Currently, there is a lot of potential overlap, duplication and conflict between the various institutions. On the other hand, efforts to build public capacity to condemn, fight and make corruption a high risk, low gain enterprise should be doubled. Skills to conduct effective investigations and prosecution of corrupt conduct should be enhanced to increase conviction rates.
Unless those in authorities start to foster an environment of meritocracy in the public sector, the fight against corruption will continue to be fruitless. No amount of words and good intentions without action will make a difference. Or else, the seriousness of this conference as demonstrated by the presence of the heads of all the three arms of government (the President, Chief Justice and Speaker of the National Assembly) will be undermined.
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