At the recent Public Affairs Committee (PAC) conference, Norwegian ambassador Asbjørn Eidhammer made a wide ranging analysis of successive administrations in Malawi, focusing on areas such as corruption and abuse of resources. Nation on Sunday editor Ephraim Munthali caught up with Eidhammer to shed more light on the issues he raised.
At the PAC conference, your speech appears to have been an assessment of Malawian regimes. What were you trying to communicate to the delegates and Malawians in general?
I wanted to show how Malawi’s development has gone in a zigzag of progress and crisis over the last 20 years. But from each crisis, Malawians came out wiser, and their experience made the country move forward. As such, all the successive governments have contributed to progress. Democracy has never been stronger in Malawi than it is today, and people have never felt freer. According to Afribarometer, Malawi is today among 34 African countries, where polls have been possible, where the largest percentage of the population say they are free to speak their mind. That is remarkable.
The PAC conference provided striking evidence of this. When have you ever heard ministers of foreign affairs, finance and justice in Malawi patiently listening to the most critical comments and questions from opposition and civil society, and then giving detailed responses to each and every question? It lasted for nearly four hours. That is accountability.
You were quoted as saying you have seen corruption spreading into various sectors of the economy? What exactly did you imply?
When I came back to Malawi after seven years in Norway, I met corruption more often than before and I experienced that it also had spread into civil society organisations. I will not go into detail about that at this stage. But the situation calls for soul-searching in most segments of the society.
Development partners have over the past decade invested billions of kwacha in strengthening Public Finance and Economic Management (PFEM). The cashgate scandal gives the impression that the investment was a waste. Why haven’t your efforts borne any fruits? Are there lessons to be learnt and, if so, what are they?
It is obvious to everybody that the system was not good enough, and the revelations have been shocking to most of us, including people in government. There are probably several reasons why things went wrong. The system had holes, but also people took advantage of the weaknesses. A sense of impunity seems to have spread. The lessons are clear. One has to put better control measures in place and people have to be made accountable. More vigilance is absolutely required.
For some time now, Norway does not seem to make demands to the government in public on the cashgate issues. Should we think there is a different forum through which such comments are made?
It is certainly not correct that we are not making demands. Many times, and latest in my speech at PAC, I said that no matter who was behind cashgate, the government in power must take responsibility. Which I am glad to say the government has done, in instituting an open process of audits and investigations which may be unprecedented on this continent. I also said development partners will not relent, we need to get as much clarity as possible on what happened and we need to see the guilty brought to book. This is what the president herself has demanded. That said, we also meet with the government every week at very high level to monitor and discuss the progress.
Development partners came out very strongly in support of President Banda largely, at least in my view, because of her earlier efforts to bring back the respect for human rights and moved swiftly to implement economic reforms that donors had long pushed for. After cashgate, do you have any regrets regarding the all-out embrace of President Banda earlier in her Presidency?
President Banda’s immediate action to secure human rights and do away with “bad laws” was certainly supported by partners, as well as the large majority of Malawians. And it is the main reason why Malawians today feel free. The economic reforms were the only way to bring the economy on the right course again. Malawians had consumed much more than they produced. For some time this imbalance was camouflaged by development aid, but that could not last. The reforms hurt many people, but there was no other way. This policy was strongly supported by partners and in the course of a year, the results started showing. One can have no regrets in supporting policies that make people free and the economy grow again. And I believe that after this, whoever wins the election, one cannot go back to the old ways.
The forensic audit report is out. What is your take? Anything that has surprised you?
The extent of the malpractice, and the ease with which it seems to have been done, still surprises me. But after what we already knew, it was clear that we were in for something bad.
There is a sense that donors are very protective of President Banda even in the face of cashgate. What is your position?
What Norway, and I think also others, relates to is what is actually being done to clean up. A very ambitious action plan has been worked out, and numerous international auditors and investigators have been brought in. As far as I know, they have been met with full cooperation. We have to commend that. But we also underline that there is a long way to go before final judgment can be made.
With the upcoming election it goes without saying that we do not take sides. We expect whoever is elected to make sure that cashgate does not happen again.
I want to believe that most Norwegian taxpayers, or at least their representatives and policy-makers, are aware of cashgate. What is their general reaction? To what extent will cashgate make it harder to lobby for more development aid for Malawi?
The reaction has been strong. Budget support was immediately frozen. But again, people also look at what is being done to make sure there is change. And we do not want to abandon Malawians, when the need is so big.
Some weeks ago, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) affirmed that Malawi is on track with the Extended Credit Facility (ECF). Should we expect Norway to release withheld aid?
We have not reduced aid, we have just channelled it differently. We have, for instance, made an arrangement where our funding goes into a forex account with the Ministry of Health and then directly into separate accounts of central and district hospitals. The control measures are very strict. There is a dire need for funding in the hospitals and in this way we can continue to assist while securing our funds.
The government set up an action plan for dealing with cashgate matters. Where are we today? Do you feel progress has been made?
Yes, no doubt so far. But the plan is very ambitious and we are monitoring progress carefully.