I am not sure as yet whose idea it was that Malawi should hold a national conference on corruption, but I would be surprised if, in retrospect, the brains behind this initiative were patting themselves on the back. That is assuming the aim was to take some meaningful steps towards fighting the cancer that is pulling this country backwards.
But if the aim was to hear Professor Patrick Otieno Lumumba share his hard-hitting thoughts live, or to line some pockets through allowances, or to put up a show for the international community that we care about corruption, chances are that the mission was accomplished. People took time off their busy schedules to start off what was already a long weekend a little earlier.
I was following goings on at the Bingu International Conference Centre in Lilongwe from a distance, but with keen interest because I am very concerned with the levels of graft in this country. After seeing the consultation paper that was the basis of the conference, I had some faint hopes that government has woken up and wants to seriously tackle corruption and fight it with more seriousness than has been evident all along.
Listening to President Peter Mutharika and the minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs James Tembenu, however, I was left with no doubt in my mind that there is no seriousness whatsoever in the fight against corruption at the highest level in government. And if there is no political will at that level, we might as well forget about taming the vice in the foreseeable future.
I mean, how do we fight something whose existence we do not acknowledge? How can we devote the resources required in the fight against corruption if we are convinced that what we have is only perception and unsubstantiated allegations? How can we seriously take any recommendations from that conference on what needs to be done in this all important fight if we think allegations of corruption are mere imaginations of detractors?
Many speakers at the conference, including Speaker of the National Assembly Richard Msowoya, singled out the freeing of the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) from the tight grip of government as one of the key and most decisive moves that need to be made if the attack on corruption is going to be really effective but government was determined to resist this fundamental change.
Tembenu’s argument in support of the status quo was as lame as it was ridiculous. He curiously suggested that by appointing the ACB director, the President is actually showing leadership in the anti-corruption fight. If only Malawians did not know better! Only someone who has just landed in this country from Mars can see the purported sense in that argument. That was one of the many lows of the gathering
Even the most gullible of Malawians knows that public appointments from Kamuzu Palace are merely a reward for loyalty and sycophancy. How can anyone in their right senses associate such appointments to any commitment to or leadership in the fight against corruption? Indeed, would leaving the appointment of the bureau director take away any supposed leadership from the presidency?
Contrary to Tembenu’s assertion I would like to think that there would be more leadership shown at the highest political level in this fight if the President were to ceede his appointing powers of the bureau’s leadership to Parliament or any other professional body. Everyone knows that the highest propensity to engage in corrupt practices is within government and that those with political power are more likely to be corrupt. It does not make sense to repose the powers of checking that with the same people.
So, when you see government almost denying that there is corruption in this country and rebuffing any suggestions that the ACB should be independent of executive control, you have every reason to be worried. It is either the President has something to gain from the non-existent fight against corruption or he is surrounded and advised by those who stand to lose if the ACB were independent.
What would the President lose if the ACB and other governance bodies were independent? I would have thought that he would even have more courage to take the institutions to task if they slackened. As it is, because they are his appointees, their failures are his as well and no wonder he is in defensive mode because he looks at an attack on the ACB as an attack on him. It would be different if these were not his appointees.
So here we are, that two-day conference in Lilongwe was a waste of time and the other resources that went into it. Nothing will change because the President does not think there is corruption in this country. In fact, rather than taking the fight to another level, the conference was only called to tell the world that there is no corruption in this country. By implication, there is nothing to fight. One wonders whether we need the ACB at all in that case.
Which is why I was asking whose idea it was to hold this conference and everything that came before it. I understand preliminary consultations with various stakeholders took place to come up with the consultation paper that formed the agenda of the conference and that policy and legal reforms would follow. What chances are there that there will indeed be any reforms given the sentiments coming from government?
If indeed there will be any reforms should we trust that they will go far enough to give real teeth to this important fight? I have my doubts. Very serious doubts.