A Malawi court on Tuesday ordered a senior government official jailed for three years, in the first sentence to be handed down in the so-called Cashgate scandal that led to the suspension of foreign aid to the country.
Treza Namathanga Senzani, the former principal secretary in the tourism ministry, pleaded guilty to stealing $150 000 from state coffers, and was condemned to three years behind bars for money laundering and theft.
“Despite being a first offender, she does not deserve a suspended sentence,” ruled judge Ivy Kamanga.
The judge also ordered that the funds she pilfered be forfeited to government. The cash was part of a broader swindle worth at least $30 million.
The scandal prompted foreign donors – who provide around 40 percent of Malawi’s budget – to pull the plug on aid of around $150 million (118 million euros).
The Cashgate scheme is the biggest financial scandal in Malawi’s history, and helped push former president Joyce Banda out of power during elections in May.
The judge said that as a principal secretary, Senzani “was a custodian of money and willingly stole government money”.
“It was an illegal act that had an impact on the economy.”
Senzani (50), who looked composed after the two-hour long sentence ruling, was arrested last year after a probe found she issued two government cheques to her own company even though it did not provide any goods or services to the state.
She is one of the dozens of civil servants charged with theft and money laundering.
Defence lawyer Nector Mhura plans to appeal the sentence.
On June 14 1993, Malawians voted in a referendum to decide if they wanted to continue with one-party rule or adopt multiparty democracy. Sixty-four percent of Malawians voted against a one-party system. The referendum ended an over 30-year ban on all other political opposition in Malawi. Prior to this, the then ruling party Malawi Congress Party (MCP) was the only legitimate political grouping.
By opting for multiparty democracy, Malawians did not only reject the one-party system but departed from a certain ideology. Malawi now had a population that was no longer, if this was ever the case, united under one ideology. And when people are ideologically divided, tolerance provides key social threads that knit the societal fabric together.
This past weekend marked 21 years of multiparty democracy in the country. A number of social, economic and political factors indicate that Malawi has some way to go before it can become a truly tolerant society. Like all societies, Malawi has a historical context in which these issues must be understood.
Malawi attained democracy on the backdrop of 71 years of colonialism followed by 30 years of authoritarian rule. These regimes made Malawians inward looking: any concept, culture and way of living deemed unfamiliar to “Malawi culture” was to be rejected and avoided at all costs. This is what sustains oppressive regimes. It is a huge ask that Malawians become a tolerant society overnight. However, a sober look at the last two decades of Malawi’s democracy shows it is more mature than most critics would give it credit for.
Malawi has faced challenges that have tested its strength, maturity and resolve. One of the most notable of these challenges is former president Bakili Muluzi’s (in office between 1994 – 2004) attempt to increase presidential term limits so he could give himself a chance to seek a new mandate. Though a close vote in the end, Malawi’s Parliament stopped Muluzi’s bid and democracy ultimately prevailed.
Bingu wa Mutharika, Muluzi’s handpicked successor whose sudden death in office on April 5 2012 triggered a political transition, was another key moment that put our democracy to the test. Mutharika’s loyalists attempted to block Malawi’s then vice-president Joyce Banda’s succession of Mutharika as per constitutional stipulation. Again, the rule of law prevailed and President Banda was sworn in on April 7 2012 as the fourth president of the Republic of Malawi.
Joyce Banda lost this year’s elections to Bingu wa Mutharika’s brother, Peter. Banda finished a distant third, Lazarus Chakwera of Malawi Congress Party finished second. She is the first sitting president to lose an election since Malawi adopted multiparty democracy. Banda alleged electoral flawed and failed in her attempt to call for a re-run. It took eight tense days before the national electoral body finally announced the winner and Banda conceded victory to Peter Mutharika. This was yet another stern test for Malawi’s democracy, and the country passed it.
Recently, Mail & Guardian Africa published an article attributing Banda’s acceptance of the election results and the fact that she allowed fair contest to her gender. The logic of this argument is questionable and is not fully supported by facts. For a start, the history of presidential successions in Malawi shows that Banda’s acceptance of electoral defeat, albeit reluctantly, is in line with the trend of Malawi’s democracy. The change of power in the country has always been peaceful but not without minor resistance.
Malawi, like many African democracies, has a long way to go, especially in the areas of social, economic and human development. There is too much politicking in the country, which takes more precedence than service delivery. Fifty-two percent of Malawians live below the international poverty line. Service delivery remains very poor – a 2010 World Bank report indicated that only 9% of 14.8 million Malawians had access to electricity by 2009.
Findings by Water for People, an NGO advocating for safe drinking water in the country since 2000, show that only 62% of peri-urban areas have access to water that meets government standards, while in rural areas only 45% of people have access to safe drinking water.
These are the areas where democracy has clearly failed to deliver in Malawi. If left unchecked, it could result in voter apathy, which is harmful for a developing democracy. We need people to continue participating in politics, but if voting patterns are anything to go by, Malawians are already losing trust in political parties.
The number of independent parliamentarians in the country has grown with every election. There was no single independent MP in 1994 when Malawians voted for the first time. Ten years later, 40 independent MPs won elections. The 2014 elections produced more independent MPs – 52 – than any political party.
There is this general perception that African democracies are flawed, which is not without justification of course, but which democracy is perfect? The danger of this view is that we tend to concentrate on the negatives only. Malawi’s democracy has shown resilience when faced with tricky situations. Service delivery and the Cashgate scandal continue to cast a shadow but when it comes to succession, politicians in Malawi have always respected the rule of law, which is a good sign for any democracy.
Jimmy Kainja is an academic, lecturing at Chancellor College, University of Malawi. He’s also a current affairs and political analyst and blogger. He is interested in news media, communications and political & social changes, particularly in Malawi. He blogs at www.jimmykainja.co.uk. Follow him on Twitter:@jkainja
After days of confusion, court injunctions, accusations of vote rigging and a series of irregularities with the voting process, Malawi finally has a new president. Peter Mutharika, an academic and a younger brother to Bingu wa Mutharika, Malawi’s former president who died in office in 2012, was sworn in on Saturday and inaugurated on Monday, June 2. He is Malawi’s fifth president.
Mutharika’s victory, with only 36% of the national vote, does not represent a total change in local politics; it is more of a continuation of his brother’s presidency, which was punctuated by Joyce Banda’s two-year rule. Bingu wa Mutharika died while lining up his young brother to succeed him. Peter’s victory has accomplished that mission, which seemed improbable when a heart attack cut short Bingu’s life on the morning of April 5 2012.
Joyce Banda, then state vice president, replaced the late Mutharika, in line with a constitutional provision.
On May 20 this year, Banda led her own party into an election for the first time. She lost badly, finishing a distant third with 20.2%, after Mutharika’s 36% and Lazarus Chakwera’s 27.8%. It is the first time in Malawi that a sitting president has lost an election since the country held its first democratic election in 1994.
Mutharika’s much-anticipated inaugural speech on Monday did not live up to most Malawians’ expectations. It lacked the weight and clarity of the speech his brother delivered 10 years ago. But then it touched on almost every sector of the economy, from tomato vendors to foreign policy. Perhaps this underlines the fact that Peter Mutharika is more of an academic than a politician, unlike his brother. In fact, it’s unlikely that Peter Mutharika would be in politics today had his brother not ruled Malawi first.
Most parts of his speech were a carbon copy of his party’s manifesto. The promise of a small cabinet of no more than 20 ministers, for instance. This is a big deal in Malawi, a country that is used to having up to 40 cabinet ministers, including their deputies.
Mutharika made it a point to clarify that he has no axe to grind with his rivals. Singling out his arch-rival Joyce Banda, Mutharika expressed his disappointment at her absence at the inauguration ceremony even though she had been invited
The rivalry between Mutharika and Banda dates back to the time when Banda deputised Bingu. Banda is on record saying that Bingu promised that she would succeed him, but this changed when Peter Mutharika came into the picture. Bingu opted for his young brother as a successor. The row led to Banda’s expulsion from Mutharika’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Banda and few colleagues then formed their own political group, eventually registering it as the People’s Party (PP). Bingu’s death meant that Banda would form a government, taking her party with her and therefore relegating DPP to opposition benches.
Peter Mutharika and few DPP top officials tried in vain to prevent Banda from succeeding Bingu. Their attempt to stop her from ascending to the presidency later resulted in Peter Mutharika and his colleagues being charged with treason – charges that still stand. With the recent turn of events, however, the treason charges against Mutharika are unlikely to stick as sitting presidents in Malawi have immunity from prosecution.
In fact local analysts believe the tables will be turned, and it will be Joyce Banda facing prosecution now, most likely on corruption charges. Many unresolved high-profile corruption cases happened on her watch, most notably the colossal looting of over $100 million from government coffers by senior civil servant and politicians, known as “Cashgate”. The fact that Mutharika says he wants to bury the past and move on may be assuring but history shows that every former president in Malawi has faced a court case of some kind. Joyce Banda will be aware of this.
Foreign policy The other key issue to emerge from Mutharika’s inaugural speech was foreign policy. It’s clear that the new president is not sure of western donor support. He said foreign policy would be based on “what is best for Malawi”, adding that Malawi would continue with traditional relationships with donor countries and organisations “but we are now looking for new friends in the emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Russia”.
It is a loaded and multifaceted statement but it shows that Mutharika is accurately aware that he has his work cut out insofar as winning confidence of traditional donors is concerned. To start with, at the time of Bingu’s death, most donor countries had deserted Malawi due to Bingu’s undiplomatic tendencies, poor governance and his increasingly autocratic behaviour. Crucially, Peter Mutharika was foreign affairs minister at the time; he must have been involved in diplomatic negotiations one way or another. It is most likely that most donors have grown cold feet at Peter Mutharika’s victory. Mutharika’s emphasis on looking for “new friends” suggests that he is worried about it.
Furthermore, Mutharika has inherited a government that has lost 40% of annual budget support which comes from donors. Donors decided to withhold this support late last year in response to the “Cashgate” revelations. Convincing donors to release the cash will be Mutharika’s first task. The president needs no reminding of how much Malawi suffered economically under his brother’s rule when donors froze budgetary support. Bingu died with Malawi’s economy on the verge of collapse – Peter Mutharika cannot afford to start his presidency on this note.
Irrespective of his victory, Mutharika still needs to win the confidence of a lot of Malawians. Sixty-four percent of Malawians voted against him. He won the election via the country’s shambolic first-past-the-post voting system, which does not require a re-run even if the leading candidate fails to get more than 50% of the vote. Bingu Mutharika initially came to power in 2004 with only 35% of the national vote. However, his excellent performance in his first term won him a second term with a landslide of 63%. Peter will be looking to achieve the same, albeit under different circumstances.
Jimmy Kainja is an academic, lecturing at Chancellor College, University of Malawi. He’s also a current affairs and political analyst and blogger. He is interested in news media, communications and political & social changes, particularly in Malawi. He blogs at www.jimmykainja.co.uk. Follow him on Twitter: @jkainja
Malawi, traditionally dependent on Western aid donors, will look for “new friends” in countries such as China and Russia, newly-elected President Peter Mutharika said at his inauguration on Monday.
The ceremony at a stadium in the commercial capital Blantyre was boycotted by outgoing president Joyce Banda, who was soundly beaten by Mutharika in disputed elections held on May 20.
Mutharika, who takes power in one of the world’s poorest countries where 40% of the budget comes from aid, said the donor nations were “welcome to stay here”.
Foreign policy would be based on what is best for Malawi, he said.
“We will continue with traditional relationships, but we are now looking for new friends in emerging economies such as Brazil, China, India, South Africa and Russia.”
Mutharika said he regretted Banda’s absence, saying she had “declined to come here and hand over power to me.
“I was looking forward to shaking her hand and burying the past. I have an olive branch in my hands.”
A spokesperson for Banda said: “She was not officially invited and her official presidential convoy was withdrawn early hours of Saturday as soon as it was announced that Peter Mutharika had won the presidency.
“It would have been difficult for the outgoing president to travel to Blantyre.”
Treason charges Mutharika takes over despite facing treason charges for attempting to conceal the death in office two years ago of his brother, Bingu wa Mutharika, in an alleged bid to prevent Banda – then vice-president -from assuming power.
Those charges are likely to be dropped as Malawian presidents have immunity from prosecution while in office, and there has been speculation that Mutharika might now try to turn the tables on Banda and have her charged with corruption.
Banda had alleged anomalies in the election and sought to have the vote nullified.
Legal attempts to force a recount failed and the electoral commission declared Mutharika winner with 36.4% of the votes cast against Banda’s 20.2%.
Banda on Saturday congratulated Mutharika on his victory.
Malawians voted on Tuesday in the most closely contested election since the end of the one-party state two decades ago, with incumbent Joyce Banda, southern Africa’s first female head of state, facing no fewer than 11 challengers.
In the absence of reliable opinion polls, most analysts rank People’s Party leader Banda as the favourite because of her popularity in rural areas where she has been rolling out development projects and farm subsidies.
Polling stations opened more or less on time at 0400 GMT in the capital, Lilongwe, although logistical problems in the southern commercial hub of Blantyre delayed the start of voting, adding to a tense and acrimonious pre-poll atmosphere.
Many of Banda’s rivals have already cried foul, saying they have unearthed plots to rig the ballot. Diplomats say they have seen no credible evidence of vote-rigging, but delays – for whatever reason – may fuel the sense of unease and distrust.
There were chaotic scenes at a polling centre at a school in a Blantyre township, with hundreds of voters milling around for several hours while officials waited in vain for election materials to arrive.
“There’s no ink. We’re still waiting for the consignment,” one of the officials told the frustrated crowd.
Banda came to power in the landlocked, impoverished nation two years ago after her predecessor, Bingu wa Mutharika, died in office.
In her first months in power, Banda, who grew up in a village in southern Malawi, enjoyed huge goodwill from many of the country’s 13 million people who had grown to hate Mutharika’s autocratic style.
But she saw her popularity wane after she was forced to impose austerity measures, including a sharp devaluation of the kwacha, to stabilise the economy.
More recently, her administration’s reputation for probity has been hit by a $15 million corruption scandal, dubbed ‘Cashgate‘ after the discovery of large amounts of money in the car of a senior government official, that has soured relations with donors.
More than 80 people have been arrested and a former cabinet minister has been dismissed and put on trial for money laundering and attempted murder but urban voters in particular have criticised Banda’s response as ponderous and ineffectual.
Banda’s main challenger is Lazarus Chakwera, an evangelical pastor who retired from the church last year to lead the Malawi Congress Party, the rejuvenated party of the late Hastings Banda, who ran the former British colony with an iron first in its first three decades of independence.
Mutharika’s younger brother Peter is also running as the head of the Democratic Progressive Party. Another prominent contender is Atupele Muluzi, son of former president Bakili Muluzi, who took over from Hastings Banda in 1994.