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The nut cracker: Is Malawi becoming a nation of thieves?

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They build nice houses, drive flashy cars and we all envy them! They steal our money and we applaud them. We treat them as our heroes. They have become role models for our youth. They beat the legal system using every trick in the book and we clap for them. It is quite fashionable to be thieves of public funds in Malawi.

While the daily news reports about the theft of public funds are troubling, our response as a nation is beyond belief. In this year alone, we have been bombarded with such news reports of public theft of public funds in the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Agriculture. This is after a number of individuals have been convicted of cash gate offences. Is it farfetched when we then wonder whether there is any hope for this country at all in the management of its finances?

This is happening in a country where the economy is weakening because of low productivity, natural disasters and pure mismanagement, not to speak of ineffectual policies, programmes, and measures. This is happening when the Malawi Revenue Authority has been struggling to generate revenue internally, donors have decided to abandon us, and borrowing money from outside sources will only add the strain on the unsustainable debt levels that is threatening the country’s GDP and economic viability.

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This trend has been on the increase since 1994; however, what has been unfolding these days is really disturbing. Yet, there seems to be no let-up in the stealing of public funds by unscrupulous elements entrusted with managing the public sector. With this state of affairs one would be forgiven to assume that Malawi is a nation of thieves.

A first stage to solving a problem involves knowing and acknowledging it, the second step is to find the cause of the problem. There is no excuse in this area. The causes of the problem are well known and have been discussed in public and private spaced in Malawi.

Personal greed and the propensity to get-rich-quick and public appreciation for ostentation (flaunting of wealth), regardless of how the wealth is made is at the top of the list. When this is coupled with institutional weaknesses and loopholes in the systems then the conditions for institutionalising wanton theft of public funds/ state assets are set in place. This is not rocket science!

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In a system devoid of proper administrative controls and a preference to recklessness in the management of public office where criminal complicity by the perpetrators and their allies in officialdom is encouraged for mutual benefits then stealing public funds becomes the new game in town. When those in public office know that the systemic weaknesses will allow the theft to occur and not be detected promptly for any punitive action to be taken against culprits they will compete in a game of who steals the most. Especially if they know that there is dogged resistance by those in authority for institutional reforms for fear of plugging the very loopholes that benefit them! The reason there is stealing everywhere is because stealing of public funds is a profitable business in Malawi!

The spate of wanton theft of public funds is a clear confirmation of total breakdown of discipline in the management of public affairs. The President and his Cabinet is at the receiving end, not necessarily because he is directly involved in the widespread theft of public funds being revealed, but because he is the epitome of authority and it is his duty to deal with this evil in the country. Who wants to be the President of a nation of thieves?

Of course the President is not GOD and therefore it is impossible for him to know everything that goes on in all the Ministries, Departments and all the institutions regarded as constituting the public sector. However, the constitution allows him to delegate this oversight responsibility to his appointees. It is therefore his duty to ensure that his appointees in these institutions are scrutinised and condemned in the context of the looting going on. They stand accused of incompetence or criminal complicity and should be dealt with. This function cannot be left to the courts alone.

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