Humans are best taught by tragedies. Consider the First and Second World Wars, for instance. They were, of course, tragic wars to humanity: millions dead and crippled, economies in rubble and poverty deepened.
But the two wars created a critical moment for collective reflection. Disturbed by the carnage, global leaders found a rare opportunity to sit, discuss and develop instruments for safeguarding future peace. As a result, the United Nations (UN) was born in 1948.
It may not be as efficient as we would want it to be. But since its founding, the world has never witnessed a major war so tragic like the two world wars.
Despite its weaknesses, the UN has been key in fostering the relative peace the world is enjoying today. In fact, some historians speculate that we are now living in one of the most peaceful periods in history.
Would it be misleading, then, to argue that the world, in founding the UN, learnt from a tragedy?
Cashgate, just like the two world wars, is a national tragedy. You and I understand how the scandal has reared its ugly head on various sectors of the economy. That is why I share the public rage against Joyce Banda’s government.
However, if you take it from the other side, there is a beautiful silver lining in this scandal. And this is why: we have always known, since 1964, that politicians loot public money. But we knew little about how the looting actually happens. Thank God for the cashgate! Today, we can confidently stand on an anthill and say that for politicians to loot public money, they use senior civil servants as their conduits.
The recently released Forensic Audit Report finds that on several occasions the Reserve Bank of Malawi (RBM) authorised cheques with two signatories, yet the law requires the central bank to only do that with three signatories.
The fact that President Joyce Banda has not fired RBM governor Charles Chuka in the context of such telling revelations speaks volumes about the link between politicians and senior civil servants in this cashgate saga.
The point is, if we are really interested in curbing future cashgates, the debate today should have been on brainstorming ways of cutting the umbrical cord connecting politicians and civil servants in the looting syndicate.
The question we should have been debating is: what is it about our senior civil servants that makes them submit easily to irrational and unethical demands of politicians? Unfortunately, since cashgate struck sometime in December last year, the debate on the scandal is yet to sober up. When you listen to public discourse from donors, opposition political parties, civil society organisations (CSOs), social and mainstream media all you get is one thing: anger and more anger.
The media is still shocked with the magnitude of the looting: we are still analysing its impact on social service delivery. CSOs are still issuing long and empty statements of condemnations and calling for speedy trial of cashgate cases. Political parties, like CSOs, are still condemning those responsible and are using cashgate as an election issue by promising to act differently without discussing the ‘how’ part.
The donors, apart from funding the forensic audit that reveals the obvious, are still withholding their aid and pushing for speedy trial of cashgate cases. Are we really going to move beyond this ‘collective anger’ and use cashgate as a grand opportunity to sit, discuss and devise strong instruments of preventing its repeat?
It is good, of course, to be angry at a government which steals from its people in broad day light. But anger alone is not enough to dismantle what is an entrenched marriage of looting between politicians and senior civil servants. In fact, the trial of cashgate cases will not dismantle the marriage even if they lead to mass convictions.
For this, we need reason.
One, we should not live in denial but accept that billions of tax-payers’ money have gone. This is a fact.
And two, we need to accept that the key players in the game—those that did the actual consent to the looting through authorising cheques—were senior civil servants. This is another fact.
If these senior civil servants had done their jobs as prescribed in their Terms of Reference (TORs), we would not have been talking about cashgate. Come on, would we be talking of cashgate today if the Chukas of this world had sent back suspicious cheques?
That is why we need to ask deeper questions: what moves the Chukas of this country, well educated and experienced, to sink so low by honouring cheques they surely know do not meet legal requirements?
It is not just about Chuka.
We need to reflect on why key figures such as the Secretary to the Treasury, the Auditor General and the Accountant General failed to reject, detect and discard suspicious cashgate files.
We need to reflect on why financial watchdogs such as the Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) and the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) failed to act in time to deter rampant financial flaws that culminated into cashgate.
In these reflections, we need to examine why, despite being technocrats, they easily danced to irrational and unethical beats of politicians.
Seriously, there is something about their security of tenure that makes them vulnerable to the appointing authority: the president. The fear of being fired or switched to other departments by the stroke of the pen if they stand up against their appointing authority makes them to be easily battered and chiselled into submission.
Why can’t we do to the Chukas what we did to the judges, where the president cannot play with them as pawns on a chess board? This is my submission to political parties that are promising to curb the repeat of the cashgate. Let me hear champion this loud! To CSOs, I expect you to move from issuing statements and start championing the need to rethink the security of tenure of senior civil servants. For donors, I expect you to fund the CSOs in this campaign.
The media? I expect that we promote this new agenda.
Otherwise, our anger at JB over cashgate will only lead us into another cashgate. Because, although JB’s cashgate appears down amidst the public anger, audit reports and court trials, its pillars—the marriage between strong politicians and weak senior servants—are intact. To mean, it is down but not out.